John Stackhouse RBC
John Stackhouse
Senior Vice President, Office of the CEO - RBC

Canada’s International Network and Tech-Driven Recovery

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  1. Canadians should tap into our international network of expats to create a more exponential impact and to gain knowledge on how to improve Canada.
  2. The skills needed for the future economy are collaboration, communication and critical thinking.
  3. Canadian innovations in tech must be applied to the areas of healthcare, education, financial services, arts and entertainment.


As the Canadian economy rebounds from COVID-19, Canada must double down on accepting immigrant talent; reinvest in skills program, particularly in post-secondary institutions; and help those out of work attain the digital and other skills needed to thrive when they return to their careers.

What keeps you up at night when we consider Canada as a global technology leader, especially as we are starting to lag competitively and globally? 

It is such a great question, maybe the most important economic question coming out of this crisis.  

If we thought we were challenged a year ago as a tech nation, surely that has become obvious through this crisis. We have to understand the different challenges of innovation and adoption, and they do go hand-in-hand.  

But what we have seen critically and painfully in this crisis is the price of that laggard status, especially for small- and medium-sized enterprises that have adopted technology at a much slower pace than other Western nations, and they have paid the price for that over the last year because we moved overnight to a digital existence, all of us.  

Way too many really good businesses, and I do not mean just the mom-and-pop shop at the end of your street but all sorts of service companies, too, that are terrific, but they are just not ambitious enough in the digital square.  

“As we think about the recovery and the rebuild in 2021 and beyond, this has to be front-and-centre of getting all of our businesses—big and small, west, north, east, south—moving at warp speed into a digitally-enabled, global economy.” 

The crisis has allowed some of them to catch up, and there are government supports to do that, which is helpful. But as we think about the recovery and the rebuild in 2021 and beyond, this has to be front-and-centre of getting all of our businesses—big and small, west, north, east, south—moving at warp speed into a digitally-enabled, global economy.  

That means investing in tools and technology, but it also means adopting and developing the skills and the mindsets that we need to thrive in a digital economy; one in which anyone, anywhere can be your customer and at the same time, anyone, anywhere can be your competitor.  

That is the mindset that Canadians must adopt if we are going to move from twenty-second on Bloomberg’s innovation scale way up to the top of the league in short order. 

What talent-focused strategies should Canada adopt to aggressively grow our tech industry and digital economy? 

We absolutely need to double down on immigration and on more skills-minded approaches to education at all levels, but especially in post-secondary. But we also need to better value and measure the skills beyond the tech skills that we tend to think of. Let me talk to those three points very quickly. 

In immigration, we have done really well in the last few years of going after skilled immigrants and competing with the best in the world and winning. It is going to be a more competitive landscape coming out of this crisis, so we cannot assume that our lead is going to take care of itself. We need to be out there now as people are making decisions of where to move in 2021 and 2022 and make the case for Canada to be the destination for them because we are going after the world’s best and brightest.  

The best way we do that is by attracting international students. We get half a million international students a year to Canada, and we can probably increase that. I like to say we train them to survive four winters—surely, that makes them Canadian. As soon as they graduate, we have to make sure they stay here.  

Then we need to continue to invest in skills programs in post-secondary education not just for young people but for reskilling. There are a lot of people who have been displaced by this crisis and they will not have jobs to go back to. We need to ensure that they are accessing great, world class tech-minded opportunities through our college and university system, and they can do that in place or digitally. We need to ramp that up to ensure that people, Canadians of all ages, are developing the skills that they need to thrive in the 2020s.  

Thirdly, we have to focus on the skills we need to lead. We did a really important piece of research on this at RBC called Humans Wanted, and it demonstrated how the skills that are most in demand are not coding, but critical-thinking, communication and collaboration. Of course, we still need coding, but we need people who are critical thinkers, collaborators and communicators in all sectors, not just the tech sector.  

“The skills that are most in demand are not coding, but critical-thinking, communication and collaboration.” 

One of the sectors I spent a lot of time with is agriculture, which is poised to be transformed in the 2020s through agtech. We need to ensure that every farmer, food producer and food worker in this country has tech skills and is digitally savvy to help feed the world. That is just one sector that we can help transform with more investments in technology. Healthcare, education, financial services, arts and entertainment—they can all be supercharged and need to be coming out of this crisis with those sorts of skills that are there to be developed both for Canadians now and the generations of immigrants that we hope will move here in the decade ahead. 

How can Canada’s existing workforce ready themselves for the transition to tech and AI-enabled employment? 

Absolutely, that has to be a front-and-centre question for every Canadian. If you just think about the last eight months, has your work, your job and your ambitions changed? We have to be sure that we are not going back to 2019.  

As we move to a more hybrid environment, and as we look at the economy in 2021 and beyond, it is going to look very different from anything we have known. Therefore, the skills needed to thrive, whether you are an artist or a financial services professional, a doctor or a teacher or a techy, the skills you will need to pursue your passion are going to be different. That is a great opportunity because you can pursue your passion in all sorts of new ways.  

We have just published a report called 8 Ways COVID Will Transform the Economy and Disrupt Every Business, and we look at how everything is changing, how we work, how we shop, how we watch, how we share, how we travel, and the skills for all of those things need to be different. Let us use this opportunity, as we are all freshly aware of the world and how it is changing around us, to get the training to people in real time, through their devices in ways that they can develop these skills in the moment, because we cannot wait for another six months or a year to do this. When we think about the artists who are out of work and stuck at home—and I cannot wait for them to be back—they will be returning to work and sharing and creating their art using technology in new ways. How are we going to help them develop those skills now? 

One area where Canada can really seize this moment is with interactive media. I spend time dealing with the gaming industry, which is really strong in Canada, in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal especially, and gaming is not some crazy thing out there that only the gaming tribe is doing. Gaming is becoming central to every piece of content in the world, and if you are a content creator—and news flash, we are all content creators—and you are not applying the principles and the skills of gaming to your content, be sure that you are going to want to a year from now when your competitors are doing that. One small example of how we can use these strengths that exist in Canada to transform other sectors is healthcare. Increasingly, gaming is being used to communicate with patients and the general public. Healthcare professionals will need the digital skills to marry with the great skills that they already have in that sector.  

What is Canada’s value internationally, and is it the right time for Canada to bring this value to the world?  

I hope that Canadians will not just pick up my new book, Planet Canada, but share it with Canadians around the world because we can all spend more time thinking about the Canadian expats out there. This book has sparked amazing conversations that I am having with Canadians in Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, because they are so hungry to help elevate Canada’s place in the world and amplify Canada’s voice in the world. I have strangers reaching out to me from all corners of the world who have heard of or read the book, and asking: How can I help? It is such a Canadian response.  

This is one of our big, quiet opportunities for the decade ahead because we have shifted from a world of institutions—and institutions still matter, the United Nations still matters—but we have shifted from institutions to networks, and the world today is being shaped by networks more than institutions.  

“Tech is changing the world through networks, and networks give you the power of 10.” 

I like to say to people the two biggest forces in the world this year, other than a little virus, have been #BlackLivesMatter, and Greta Thunberg and the climate movement. Both of those are networks. There are no organizations, there is no institution behind #BlackLivesMatter or behind what Greta is doing. They are networks of people, and it is so important in a tech conversation because tech is changing the world through networks, and networks give you the power of 10. Nothing is a one-to-one conversation or a one-to-one work project, it is one-to-ten and then to a hundred and a thousand—exponential thinking is what we like to call it.  

As a country, Canada needs to think more exponentially. We have 40 million people, which is the size of a big city in China right now. We have 2 million or maybe more expats; how do we use them to exponentially access 20 million or 200 million people globally to be part of the pro-Canada network? 

The Canadians out there are probably really, really good at what they do and our challenge as a country is not thinking ambitiously enough about their networks. I learned this from so many different people, but there is an extraordinary Canadian woman in Silicon Valley named Shona Brown, who was one of the early executives of Google and sits on some incredible multinational boards. She is really a quiet force in the Valley, and she does not seek publicity, so most people have never heard of her. But when I spoke to her, she said, ““I was one of the top people at Google, I am one of the most networked people on the subject of networks and tech in the world, but no one has every called me to ask how I can help Canada.” I heard that from scores of Canadians who are top 10 people in their field in the world, and no one has ever called them.  

“The Canadians out there are probably really, really good at what they do and our challenge as a country is not thinking ambitiously enough about their networks.” 

I do not say this as a criticism, I share this as an opportunity, and it is not just for government. It is for Canadian companies and it is for Canadian entrepreneurs. If you are listening to this and you are a manager in a company or an entrepreneur, and you are thinking about international opportunities, think about the Canadians wherever you go. Call the Trade Commissioner and say you need to plug into the Canadian network. Let us do it, and you can do that virtually now—so how do we accelerate this network thinking? 

John Stackhouse RBC
John Stackhouse
Senior Vice President, Office of the CEO - RBC

Bio: John Stackhouse is the Senior Vice President, Office of the CEO at RBC where he leads research and thought leadership on economic, technology and social change. He is also a journalist, author and former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail. He is also a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Organization Profile:
The Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) is a Canadian multinational financial services company. Founded in 1864 in Halifax, the bank now serves more than 16 million clients worldwide. RBC’s corporate headquarters are in Toronto, Ontario.