John Weigelt
National Technology Officer - Microsoft Canada

Canadian Competitiveness: How Businesses and Governments Must Adapt

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Takeaways

  1. Canada must apply its homegrown tech, such as AI, to promote national business gains and to solve global challenges in which Canada has experience and competitive advantages.
  2. Canadian businesses, governments and entrepreneurs must adopt a mindset of constant adaptation and maintain a close eye on international competitors in order to remain competitive in the future economy.
  3. Government has increased competitiveness through enabling the attraction of top talent and providing direction through its Supercluster initiative. But it must focus on leveraging its procurement and reshaping our approach to education.

Action

We need to foster a continuum of learning in terms of education in Canada. A strong national skills strategy is needed to help Canadians all across the board succeed in a changing world. Having great school systems all around the country will also help anchor down local entrepreneurs who are raising families.


How is Canada performing in terms of the application of our homegrown technologies, and how can we ensure that the implementation of this technology benefits Canadian society as a whole?

We are seeing Canadian organizations do very well in using homegrown advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), to promote business gains. For example, AI is being used to improve Canadian financial services, the legal profession, accounting, and agriculture. Taking that technology and applying it towards a business challenge is where Canada has its strengths, and that is where the majority of opportunity lies as well.

When I look at Canada’s role on the global stage and where the opportunities are for us, I always lean on the things that Canada is known for, such as healthcare. Artificial intelligence has a great opportunity to help in healthcare, whether through diagnosing disease or other applications, so this is one of the areas Canada should be focusing on moving forward. One of the human challenges that can be addressed by AI is disability. When you look at the vision challenged community, 50% of that community lives below the poverty line. We should look to develop AI-enabled vision, speech, hearing, and mobility tools, as well as tools for the cognitively challenged.

Due to its large size, Canada also has communities that are more disconnected, living in remote areas far from populated regions. It is important to engage them in the AI conversation as well since their voices will be a key part of developing an inclusive solution for the country.

Environmental sustainability through AI would be another area of opportunity for Canada to develop. Artificial intelligence could help us answer the question of how to perform natural resource extraction in the cleanest way possible.


How should Canadian businesses adjust their approach to cybersecurity to safeguard their assets and reputation in the future economy?

Financial services come to mind as a leader in terms of using technology and artificial intelligence to help with their digital transformation, customer engagement, and new products. The healthcare cluster also saw some great work being done in disease management and diagnosis techniques. For these sectors especially, cybersecurity is vital.

With that said, a lot of our shortcomings around cybersecurity boil down to people not doing the fundamentals such as keeping their security tools up to date and educating their workforce about security. We cannot start talking about the more nefarious aspects of cybersecurity until we get the fundamentals straight. While education is important, organizations also need to invest in keeping their computing platforms up to date.  

From there, it is a matter of helping organizations understand what the real cyber threats are to their business and to understand the value of the information they possess. We need to think differently about the challenge and find new ways to incentivise businesses to smash the status quo. We need to simplify and suggest actionable changes instead of just providing vague guidance.

For instance, one of the best ways to protect your business from cyber threats is to move to the cloud. Microsoft invests over $1 billion a year on security and has over 3,000 people working on our security every day, so it is much more secure than many other options.


What shifts in mindset are needed to increase Canadian businesses’ competitiveness?

Canada is not as competitive as other regions around the world. According to the Institute of Competitiveness and Prosperity, we lag in prosperity because we have an innovation gap. Deloitte Canada’s “Canada at 175” research also suggests that Canadian businesses tend to want to maintain the status quo and that we need to do more to keep ahead of the competition. 

Canadian businesses are resistant to change unless the system gets broken. What often happens with businesses that have large workforces and established business plans is that they are very resistant to change. They have built a reputation and knowledge base for themselves, and have a standard set of ways to operate. But if we can show them a better way, they may want to come along and drive that innovation. And we must emphasize this in Canada.

When we saw the economic downturn that rattled the US’ manufacturing industry, Canadian manufacturing also dipped and output declined. What happened then was our manufacturing industry started investing in technology and now, it has managed to supersede its pre-downturn output levels. Canadian manufacturers also achieved this with less staff because they automated and moved staff to other places. Sometimes businesses require a downturn in order to have a reset and have people finally decide that the status quo is not good enough.

Looking at Canada’s entrepreneurial community, one of the biggest challenges it faces is monetizing Canadian inventions. A lot of invention happens here but our inventors and research community are not necessarily focused on developing the business models needed to support and sustain these inventions and developments. We must increase Canada’s ability to commercialize the innovation that we invest in and that takes place here if we’re to remain competitive in the future economy.


What must Canadian governments do to encourage competitiveness?

There is a lot of organizational inertia within the government. Government is very policy and directives driven. It has a number of procurement clauses to make sure everything is above board and follows regulations strictly. Some people interpret some of that guidance without any of the flexibility that was originally intended. There is purposeful ambiguity written into the laws to provide flexibility because these laws are intended to remain in place for up to ten years. So, to increase our local technology companies competitiveness, we need our governments to be flexible around the procurement and use of technology.

On the plus side, the Canadian legislative environment has been very supportive of businesses’ ability to attract top talent into Canada. Tech companies are always in a skills battle with each other, so we are always eager to attract talent from wherever it is available. In terms of developing and retaining homegrown talent, we need to foster a continuum of learning in terms of education in Canada. A strong national skills strategy is needed to help Canadians across the board succeed in a changing world. Having great school systems all around the country will also help anchor down local entrepreneurs who are raising families.

Government also needs to give more direction in terms of where Canada aspires to be on the global stage. We have seen a bit of that direction through the Innovation Supercluster Initiative the government has fostered. Through it the government shifted the national investment strategy from having a competitive system that had over 30 contributors down to five sector-focused superclusters. We need to pick the outstanding areas that Canada is known for in innovation and then focus on those, and this is a good move in that direction.

We have also just undergone a review of Canada’s privacy legislation. There have been proposals for increasing the enforcement power of the Privacy Commissioner and greater fines that can be levied upon organizations that digress from privacy legislation. But, at the end of the day, privacy legislation is meant to be principles-based and not technology-focused so that the legislation can withstand the test of time.So as we start looking at emerging technologies, we should look at our existing legislation and determine whether it falls short or not. For instance, Canadian researchers working in AI and machine learning, such as Yoshua Bengio, have proposed that new legislation is required.

In terms of education, we need to provide people with structured learning around the theory of coding. The kind of sequential thinking that goes into having to write computer code should be promoted in the curriculum. We also need to inspire a continuous learning philosophy. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has suggested that 65% of the children entering school today will have jobs that have not yet been invented.


What must the Canadian tech sector focus on to prepare for the future economy? 

Canada and our tech entrepreneurs have a distinct opportunity to maintain our lead over our international competitors, but we need to maintain that by being fully aware of all the advances being made elsewhere in the world and being deliberate about our choices. For example, we are seeing emerging nations come out with great expertise in artificial intelligence. Africa as a continent and India are some key examples of this. As such, Canada really needs to adopt a global perspective to make sure that we are keeping ahead of the game.

We also need to pick our specializations within AI instead of trying to take a broad-brush approach. We need to be more specific about what we mean by AI and then foster the domains within it in which we have the most strengths, otherwise we might misuse our investments. 

Canadian business leaders also need to be more on board with change, and part of that comes down to us experts beings able to demonstrate to businesses where there have been disruptions in industry and how technology can play a part in making them more competitive.

Businesses need to get into the mindset of thinking differently, and that constitutes a culture change. Having these cultural conversations about the changing economy are important so that businesses can get into a mindset of adaptation and be more open to adopting new solutions.

Finally, interpersonal skills are vital in the future tech environment. For instance, at Microsoft, there is a huge emphasis on having conversations and diverse opinions, and bringing communities together. The results of those conversations are far richer and will result in us creating better solutions for everyone. So really encouraging gender, ethnic diversity, and religious diversity is important for any business.

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