February 5, 2018

Canada’s Competitiveness Needs Cooperation, not Conflict: an Op-Ed from Community Leader, Peter Schwartz

Purpose. Passion. Possibility. Potential.

There is nothing quite like a trip to Asia to understand just how different East and West truly are.

And why so many pundits believe that this will be Asia’s Century, just like the 20th Century was America’s and the 19th Century belonged to the Europeans.

It is not the frenetic pace or, certainly in places like Hong Kong, the overwhelming crush of scurrying people, flashing neon and ubiquitous technology.

It’s the sense of purpose and optimism that hangs in the air. The belief that, to become the next Jack Ma, hard work and hustle is the not-so-secret ingredient and no aspiration or dream is impossible.

That’s intoxicating to an entrepreneur and investor like me because that’s the oxygen we feed on.

Purpose. Passion. Possibility. Potential.  

But, as any angel investor or bank manager will tell you, Purpose, Passion, Possibility and Potential alone are not enough to guarantee success or accelerate Growth.

Raw talent will get you so far but the environment you operate in is a significant contributor to whether the MVP you’ve sketched out on a cocktail napkin will become “The Next Big Thing”

Communities – or ecosystems – like Silicon Valley, Bangalore and Hyderabad in India or Communitech right here in Waterloo are also critical. Places where like-minded individuals can feed off each other, collaborate, conspire, dream and build are crucial.

But isolated incubators – no matter how many of them there are or how privately funded they might be – are also not sufficient either.

What is required are well-constructed strategies and the complete focus of the private and public sector working together to truly ignite an economy. Strategies and focus to turn an Innovation Agenda into an Innovation Reality and that turn 12 Super-Clusters into 1200 or 12,000 world-class businesses.  

Strategies and laser focus that seem to be in desperately short supply in Canada today.

And sadly the notion of Canadian public and private sector working together cohesively also seems more episodic than deliberate too.

Competing at a global level gets tougher all the time. The interconnectedness of business and society coupled with the fluid movement of capital and talent is a heady mix to consider and build for. I’ve long said “Capital seeks a return” and, just like talent, it will seek markets and opportunities where that return is possible.

The traditional notion of a sovereign border is under increased pressure too and most have become incredibly porous. For a country like Canada that relies heavily on its rich cultural mosaic, that is an overt challenge.

Times like these require experienced and adroit leadership. Leadership with focus and resilience, not leadership chasing the latest bright shiny tech object.

Our municipal, provincial and federal governments enthusiastically welcome US multinationals to make our cities smarter and bid on projects to secure the 2nd Headquarters of the world’s largest Retailer, yet fail to disclose (or ask) what happens to all that private citizen smart city data, what happens to all the Canadian retail jobs that will be eviscerated or what happens to the Canadian technology entrepreneur who cannot compete for talent against the deep pockets of these US behemoths.

Those are significant concerns.

Of equal concern is the deepening tension between the Finance Ministry and Canadian business leaders. Concerns related to a number of incredibly punitive and short-sighted tax proposals that will strangle the Purpose, Passion, Potential so crucial to nurture and sustain our entrepreneurism and our competitiveness. Taxes are a necessary part of every well-functioning society but when those taxes remove all incentive to invest in new businesses and new ideas, then they’ve overstepped.

In January Bloomberg Technology released their Annual Innovation Index that tracks levels of Innovation across the world. Canada has fallen two places and now lies nestled between Poland and New Zealand. To put that in context, we enjoy 3 times the GDP of Poland and 8 times the GDP of our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, but we should be more alarmed that Poland’s R&D Intensity, a significant indicator of Innovation, sits at 35, New Zealand’s is 31, Canada’s is a paltry 21. Even Ireland, the former Celtic Tiger, has a higher R&D Intensity at 22.

While our Government continues to broadcast its commitment to Canada’s Innovation Agenda and to bolstering Canada’s competitiveness, we need more than great sound bites and broad smiley PR photographs.

Canadians need to be working together – not fighting each other – if we’re to succeed on the global stage.

Innovation is a full contact sport and global competitiveness is the ultimate prize. Make no mistake if Canada wants to keep punching above its weight we’re going to need a different strategy. The current one isn’t it.

We need a different relationship than the one that currently exists between Private and Public sectors.

A relationship that nurtures, not neuters, our Purpose, Passion, Potential.

Most importantly, one that nurtures our Possibility.

I know that these issues and concerns trouble you as they do me. As always the most critical part is information sharing and mobilizing.

Peter Swartz, Founder & Executive Chair, Kognitiv (bio)

If you have an Op-Ed to share with the community (read guidelines), please send an email to CATA CEO, John Reid at jreid@cata.ca

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