Bill Thomas is global chairman of KPMG International and former CEO and senior partner of KPMG in Canada.
Canada is known as a powerhouse of innovation. We're entrepreneurial. We're peacemakers. We're friendly. We're smart. And, above all – as many world leaders were quoted saying in Davos recently at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting – our country is genuinely open for business.
We've earned our reputation as global influencers and we'll continue to benefit from punching above our weight for as long as we take a leading role in every global meeting and gathering that looks to shape the future of the world. But as it stands, we're not getting the recognition we deserve.
I'm regularly in conversations with Canadian chief executives, discussing today's big issues in business and looking ahead to succeeding amid an uncertain future. These discussions continued in Switzerland as CEOs from Canada and the rest of the world met to discuss issues. Of particular focus in these discussions was Canada's role in the three big issues our world faces: trade, technology and talent.
Trade is the most polarizing of the "T"s. We're at a critical point in the negotiations of international deals across the world whose impacts will surely go beyond reshaping global trade paths and influencing businesses' investment decisions. Here in Canada, we're rightly focused on NAFTA, but across the Atlantic in Europe, the Brexit negotiations are equally as important.
Trade deals are essentially about tariffs on goods and services and the uncertainty undoubtedly leads to CEOs pressing the pause button on investment decisions. Canada can lead by example in negotiations and by continuing to focus resources on ensuring our avenues of business are ready for takeoff.
The second "T" is technology. Davos saw a number of really important discussions about the way we can harness the potential of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, in a way that doesn't harm society. There is a widespread recognition that, in the short to medium term, at least, technology will create rather than destroy jobs. The challenge we face is to create the right conditions for growth to be driven by technology and to create as many of those jobs here in Canada as possible. There were many discussions about the fact we, as a country, have all the right conditions (from world-class research institutions, infrastructure for growth and an entrepreneurial culture) to do just that … we just have to seize the opportunity.
The third "T" that dominated my conversations with clients was talent, and just about every CEO I spoke with here at home and abroad bemoaned the shortage of suitably-skilled recruits, particularly technology graduates. We have to work with our educational institutions to ensure they are sufficiently disrupting themselves in these times to deliver the quality and type of students the world needs.
And while much of the media attention around Davos was directed toward another "T" – U.S. President Donald Trump and his large delegation of cabinet members and other leaders – we shouldn't underestimate the importance to our economy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's opening speech. He put down a very powerful marker that his government is committed to a reform agenda that will make it increasingly easy to do business with India.
With the recent appropriate focus around the world on the #MeToo campaign, I expected gender equality and diversity to be an important topic at Davos, where only 20 per cent of delegates were women. We simply can't come up with the right, credible answers to the biggest challenges we face when half of the world's population receives only a fifth of the seats at the table. That said, I was very encouraged this year by the level of determination to move the dial on equality.
Davos remains a mass of contradictions and there are certainly elements of elitism as the world's foremost leaders gather on a Swiss mountaintop. But I am more convinced than ever that amid the pageantry , the dialogue does lead to better relations between countries and better conditions for society and business. That helps all of us, especially us Canadians, as we depend on global trade and engagement for our jobs and livelihoods.