Advancing Canada’s Digital Competitiveness: The Brass Ring Is Right in Front of Us…

In the past eighteen months, we have watched digital reshape the world. A “digital way forward” is not an option – it is a necessity. This transformation has opened the opportunity for Canada to lead in many areas – from environmental practices to health and well-being and business transformation. But historically, Canada has struggled when it comes to fostering a digital advantage. According to Bloomberg’s 2021 Innovation Index, we are ranked 21, trailing behind innovation leaders such as South Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Israel. 

On November 4th, the Digital Supercluster and CityAge held a virtual event called, “The Data Effect: Canada’s Digital Imperative.”  This event brought together over 350 delegates from across Canada to talk about Canada’s digital potential. We had the opportunity to hear fifteen digital leaders discuss Canada’s innovation opportunities, and debate how ready we are to seize them. Topics included:

  • What is Canada’s digital competitive advantage and how do we lead the Digital World?
  • How can digitization drive our natural resource future and help us meet Canada’s sustainability goals?
  • How can investments into digital health and wellness help Canadians lead better lives?

During one fireside chat, tech visionaries Chris Albinson (President and CEO of Communitech) and Paul Vallée, (Founder and CEO of Tahama) discussed how Canada is doing when it comes to digital competitiveness. Meagan Simpson (Associate Editor of Betakit) was the all-star moderator of this conversation. Here are some thought-provoking highlights that emerged from this discussion:

Overcoming access to capital challenges  

When asked about Canada’s digital competitiveness compared to the rest of the world, this question was answered with a strong sense of optimism by both Chris and Paul. To re-share the analogy painted by Chris, “The brass ring is literally just in front of us”. 

Chris explained that overall, capital flows coming into Canada have been good, with Canadian start-ups and founders raising more money this calendar year than they raised in the previous ten combined. We witnessed a number of sizable investment rounds, big exits and IPOs – all indicators of a positive trajectory. But Chris was also quick to note that this success is not evenly distributed across the country. Canada continues to suffer from access to capital challenges, which remains well below that available to American businesses.

The percentage of capital coming from the US is influencing the cap tables and board rooms of Canadian Companies. Chris observed that 90% of the funding for Canadian innovation is domiciled in the US either directly or indirectly. 90% of revenues are also domiciled in the US. This means Canadian companies could go down one of two paths. They could be like an Instacart, founded by Waterloo founders, but not really recognized as a Canadian company today. Or a Shopify, that proudly wears a maple leaf on their back, and remains domiciled here and growing here as a Canadian champion.

Buying our own innovation

Paul spoke of the challenges we have in Canada when it comes to enabling Canadian businesses to “punch above their weight” in local procurement opportunities, especially government procurement opportunities. He compared Canada to Israel, who has successfully navigated compliance with the World Trade Organization while providing ample procurement opportunity for local businesses to sell innovation domestically. The summary is that Canada can do a better job of buying made-in-Canada innovation and realizing the benefits of our innovations across important sectors such as healthcare and natural resources. If we are not buying innovation and supporting it domestically, the gravitational force of the US is going to be too strong for these companies to resist.

Getting active about intellectual property

In order for us to create a sustainable innovation economy in Canada, we must have intellectual property that is hosted in Canada. Paul noted that education and facilitation are key to the future of our economy, which is really about mining and monetizing the data around us.

Leading in ethical AI and data privacy  

We live in a time where there is growing distrust in data governance policies. People around the globe are raising valid questions about ethical data use, demanding more transparency and control over the dissemination of their personal information, especially in areas such as healthcare and banking. We want to be in charge of who we share our data with – not leaving those decisions in the hands of foreign multinationals such as Facebook, Apple and Google.  As our data economy structure changes to support that, there will be innovation opportunities around data trust, third party access to data, API driven data access, proving ethics in AI, data governance, remote workforce security and the privacy landscape.

When asked about particular areas where Canada could lead the Digital World, Paul reminded us that we have a long history of innovation in the face of citizen’s trust issues. He brought up the tradition of ‘The Iron Ring’, started in 1922 by Professor H. E. T. Haultain of the University of Toronto. The ring serves as a reminder of the engineer’s obligation to live by a high standard of professional conduct. Now, Canada is in an incredible position to charter a new approach towards data privacy and the secured sharing of data.

Christ took this conversation one step further noting that globally, we’re a trusted country, unlike the US and China. We have the opportunity to become the place where trust is actually built right into technology, upholding data governance through protocols, applied ethical data standards and eventually regulation. This could become Canada’s brand.

Collaborating across industry, government and academia

When asked who would need to lead this work, both Chris and Paul agreed: Innovative ideas start from industry and academia, but ultimately, government needs to come in to fund the success path as a partner. We need to not only identify high performing companies, academia and their innovation, but actually bring them together with potential customers and government. A lot of the investment and most innovative ideas that will take place will be born in the economy at large.

Building a digital framework for Canada

This is just one of the conversations that happened during “The Data Effect: Canada’s Digital Imperative.” Be sure to check out the full interview, along with the two panel sessions that discussed Canada’s digital advantage in resources and sustainability, as well as health and wellness.

This event was wrapped up the launch of The Digital Advantage Project. This project is a future-shaping exercise that will spark a national conversation around the importance of digital technologies and how they align to the health and well-being, environmental sustainability and economic prosperity of Canada. Over the next 90 days, we will be bringing together a broad range of Canadians from industry, government and academia, to tackle questions about:

  • The future of our healthcare system, in the endemic world
  • How digitization can transform our traditional industries that have powered our economy for decades
  • How Canada can dominate in emerging fields driven by digitization

To learn more about our three-part event series, visit: