Digital and Data Roundtable Summary: August 20, 2018—Toronto, ON

Hosted by Dr. Ilse Treurnicht & Dr. Arvind Gupta
Areas of Focus: Unleashing Innovation

Highlights of Discussion

The digital economy and Information and communications technology (ICT) sector are growing and will continue to overtake other sectors as contributors to the Canadian economy. Technology is evolving quickly, becoming more critical to business growth, even in traditional sectors. Canada has a chance to lead. However, a digital divide exists in terms of access and ability to benefit. Solutions must not widen this gap, as we need more Canadians to participate and contribute in the digital economy. 

Digital is now just another channel of doing business, however we must think broader and realize that digital and data transformation means more than just doing things we used to do in person or with paper-based processes, digitally. It opens up an entirely new range of possibilities.

Canada has a lot of strengths; our skilled, diverse talent pool is attractive, we have relatively effective immigration policies, and are strong in education and training. However, we see issues around speed, agility and willingness to take risks in the area of digital transformation. These issues stem from a culture that prefers the status quo and a lack of competitive forces. Opportunities exist to change this through greater digital literacy, awareness of market trends, and focusing on a few key areas where Canada has a competitive advantage, such as health care data.

Key Opportunities / Considerations / Challenges

Lack of Competition

Canadian companies often do not feel the need to compete due to comfortable market structures. It isn’t until the company looks to compete internationally, or international competition is brought into the local market, that there is pressure to change. Given the rapidly changing and increasingly connected global marketplace, Canada is at risk of being unprepared to compete.


Many organizations have longstanding internal guidelines and processes and are reluctant to jump in and test something new. Companies are often comfortable with the status quo. Companies are also largely focused on short term profit which leaves them unwilling to take risks that might not pay off immediately. Many companies are not proactive, and only address issues once they become tangible concerns.

There is also a culture of fear of the unknown, and a hesitation to learn and embrace something new. People are afraid of change and having to learn something new. We need greater understanding of the opportunities and benefits of using digital tools and better leveraging data in all areas of the economy. There is also fear around the risks related to data and privacy. Legal departments often advise against taking technological risks. This hesitancy in larger companies and public institutions, often brought on by very public backlash, influences other parts of the economy. Smart companies in this space are building partnerships and branching out early, however it is hard to push others to act. Small companies also often lack resources to be proactive and take advantage of new opportunities.

Market Differences

Canadian consumers don’t make the same demands on businesses and governments as citizens in other countries do (eg. online government services, integrated medical data) resulting in less incentive to innovate. Additionally, for many businesses, the first customer is American since Canadians, including government, are often apprehensive and want to see results before jumping in. Finally, there is a natural pull to a larger market, resulting in many companies growing and ultimately exiting in to the US market.

Public Funding Doesn’t Incentivize Risk

Healthcare data provides untapped innovation potential, however, many health care providers and hospitals are do not have the ability to invest appropriately in digital technologies, as it is considered outside their core mandate. Public institutions also risk losing funding when systems are made more efficient and do not have the ability to reinvest savings in further advances. There is limited room for experimentation and no room for failure.

Skills and Awareness

There is a lack of digital literacy at the board level and within the executive class, as well as a lack of understanding of how digital transformation will harm or benefit businesses. More awareness of how these changes, including the strategic use of data may offer a competitive advantage, is needed, as well as better guidance on where to go for help (eg. accelerator programs).

To build digital resilience, education systems must support a multi-disciplinary approach, encouraging internships that foster cross-pollination of technology and its applications with other disciplines and in all sectors. People need to possess the language to be able to discuss issues and solutions across all sectors.

Artificial Intelligence

A lot of interest in this space globally and an area where Canada is strong, however, due to regulations around compliance, human rights, privacy etc., other countries are moving faster. We must support smart regulation but need to find a balance, ensure we have strong talent, and find niche applications to real world problems.

Benchmarking / Standards

In certain relatively uncharted tech areas (ie: AI), no benchmarks or standards exist to help guide companies. Companies are unsure how to measure progress to ensure competitiveness and this hinders their ability to plan and direct investment. Canada has important contributions to make through active participation in setting global standards. This is an area we could lead.

Sector Hard to Define

The “Digital Sector” is hard to define as digital technologies touch more than just ICT. Sectors not thought of as ‘digital’ (eg. mining, energy, farming) are already impacted, however, these sectors don’t usually “come to the table” on digital issues. They are also often overlooked by incubators and accelerators. The sector needs to define itself, and work together to ensure cross-pollination so non-traditional sectors are not left behind.

Trust in use of Data

Data pools are vital for advancing AI and machine learning platforms. Organizations need access to shared data while ensuring trust and data protection.

In addition, bias can be built into algorithms and data systems. Need to keep data safe, but also trust that data is being used in a fair and unbiased way.

The wide-spread use of data is becoming integrated into our lives and consumers may feel compelled to provide data without fully understanding the consequences. Consumers would be more likely to give consent for data usage if they can see and understand the benefits. Better consumer education is needed on benefits and risks.


No system will be completely leak-proof in the digital world. Must keep this in mind when considering risks and mitigating factors. Need greater literacy around cybersecurity, in particular with SMEs as data hacks can go through smaller organizations to access larger organizations. Canada could lead in this area through developing standards and/or technology.

Ideas / Outcomes

Internal Digital Coach
In order to overcome reluctance to introducing new digital systems within small businesses, owners may be more open to internal help. Incentives could be given to imbed digital expertise in a company through a “digital coach”, who can then develop tools tailored to the specific business model and showcase concrete benefits.
Incubator for Digital Talent
Companies who are looking to better integrate technology will need access to talent to help with implementation.  These companies may be unsure how to access this talent pool (eg. hire someone new, train someone, etc.). A trusted source could be developed as a connector service to put them in touch with the appropriate qualified resources. This service could also connect companies to relevant peer companies to act as mentors, or showcase successful case studies to demystify the process and reassure companies early in the process of digital change that success is possible.  
Most information systems within the Healthcare system treat data differently and systems don’t speak to each other without putting in place additional privacy and data access agreements (eg. hospital to hospital). Could look at harmonizing these systems and processes so that privacy agreements and data sharing are standardized and automatic.  Consumers are increasingly demanding this change and access to their health data.
Citizen 360
Based on concept of Customer 360, government could look at one single portal for citizen services from government. Create one identity for citizens and establish databases that integrate government data across all platforms.
Best Practice Sharing
In order to advance digital capacity in key sectors, we could look at incentivizing companies to share best practices (eg. Voucher program) and address digital barriers as a whole. In addition, larger companies could help educate and support smaller companies as part of the value chain.
More research should be pursued to better understand the rapid development and changes in the digital economy. More real-time information is needed on data use in Canada, as well as the composition and activity within our tech sector. Need agreement between sector and government on what defines a “tech company” and targeted studies on unique factors that shape their growth. Could also look at the integration of digital and data transformation in to more traditional educational disciplines to identify knowledge gaps (ie: ensuring a journalism degree includes training on journalism in a digital economy).
Mid-Career Transition Strategy
Individuals whose careers are impacted by automation may not have the necessary skills to successfully re-integrate into the digital economy. An inclusive strategy is needed to help those affected as they re-skill and transition to new careers. A work-integrated learning program for mid-career workers could be an option.

Attendee List

  1. Cadilllac Fairview
  2. Telus
  3. Council of Canadian innovators
  4. Mars Discovery District
  5. University of Toronto
  6. Vector Institute
  7. DMZ Ryerson
  8. Fields Institute
  9. St. Michael’s Hospital
  10. Brookfield Institute
  11. Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC)
  12. Microsoft Canada