I had the chance to attend the Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s annual Ontario Economic Summit in Niagara-on-the-Lake last week. This year’s theme? Building Prosperity by Strengthening the Innovation Ecosystem. As was the case last year, conference attendees included leaders from the private sector, elected and non-elected members of the Provincial government, academia and chambers of commerce from across the province.
Here are my top ten takeaways.
Ontario may have played host to this conference, but make no mistake: this was a referendum on the health and future of the Canadian economy. The issues we’re facing here aren’t unique to Ontario; indeed, they’re very likely taking a greater toll elsewhere. Unless we double down on innovation, Ontario’s (and Canada’s) economy(ies) will continue to under-perform those of our American and Asian counterparts.
When compared to their foreign counterparts, Canadian businesses worry more about failing than they do about shooting high and winning big. As our Deloitte client recently noted in “The Future Belongs to the Bold,” a little more ambition and courage in Canada’s C-suites would go a long way.
Our education system is failing both our students and their future employers, from Kindergarten through to our colleges and universities. The jobs of today, and increasingly the jobs of tomorrow, demand a concerted effort against a STEAM-centric curriculum. England, which has overhauled its entire system in six years, was held up as a proof point that fast and dramatic change for the better is possible. Interestingly, Alberta announced a similar effort last June.
All roads lead to Waterloo. It became a bit of a rolling joke as the sessions went on, but if corporate Canada could adapt to replicate what’s happening at Communitech and the University of Waterloo, the issue of the day would be moot. To be fair, speakers acknowledged the great work being done at University of Toronto, Ryerson’s DMZ, MaRS and more, but Waterloo is clearly ground zero for any innovation agenda.
We need to be a little less humble. Ontario leads the world in quantum computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) – three fields that will dominate the technology space and fuel corporate innovation agendas for the next decade. Indeed, we’re home to one of the globally renowned pioneers of AI & ML, Geoffrey Hinton. Our natural tendency towards modesty and humility is working against us. We have some amazing stories to tell, and they need to be told… here and around the world.
It’s all about talent, but the brain drain (to Silicon Valley and elsewhere) is killing us. Bottom line, great talent wants to be challenged to do great work; to work with great people; and to be paid well for their efforts. Put another way – not enough Canadian businesses are currently set up and operated as great fits for today’s top talent. If we want to attract and retain the best, we need to let them fly.
Ontario’s tech talent gap is real and growing. There are significantly more tech jobs available than qualified people to fill them, so accelerating the path to immigration is essential. The Trudeau government’s announcement last week to fast-track work visas in under two weeks to qualified workers in high demand roles was applauded by all.
The buzzword of the OES was inclusion. At least half the speakers used the term in their remarks as they variously called for inclusive leadership, inclusive growth, inclusive infrastructure; inclusive prosperity and inclusive culture and society. None, however, offered any ideas as to how we achieve it, and that’s a big miss.
The second best quote of the week came from BMO Financial Group’s Vice-Chair, Kevin Lynch: “Success comes when you’re going in the right direction at the right pace.” Everyone in the room seemed to know that we (collectively) should accelerate our efforts in innovation by spending more on R&D and investing more in staff development. The real issue we have in Canada is converting thought into action fast enough.
The best quote of the week came from the founder of Future Design School, Sarah Prevette. When talking about what it takes to succeed at innovation, she quipped: you can have a lab and put all the right people and technology in it, but “methods without mindset are useless.” Simply put, corporate cultures that embrace ambiguity, encourage innovation, inspire creativity, foster collaboration and empower failure aren’t the by-products of internal innovation hubs; they’re the direct result of strong, forward-thinking leadership. And Canada needs a whole lot more of that.