Digital and Data Roundtable Summary: October 22, 2018—Ottawa, ON

Hosted by David McGovern and Jonathan Fried
Areas of Focus: G20 – The Future of the Digital Economy

Highlights of Discussion

The digital economy is helping to raise living standards within Canada, bringing social and economic prosperity. However, it is important that this prosperity is inclusive and shared by all Canadians. This means recognizing that not just tech companies are impacted by digital and data transformation. All sectors are impacted. Canada is lagging behind in tech adoption and risks losing ground on the investments made to date. Canada needs a broad agenda to promote technology adoption that is people driven and promotes life-long learning and digital skills to enhance participation for all.

Greater awareness of the benefits technology can bring is important. Industry doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, meaning many businesses are unsure what technologies exist and how it can benefit them. For those who recognize its value, many struggle to find the talent they need to implement.  Canada must raise awareness of the importance of tech adoption and motivate quick action, foster competitive markets that spur innovation, and develop and attract skilled talent. Canada must also motivate companies to remain in Canada while they grow their start-ups and commercialize their discoveries.

Canada has a highly skilled labour force and regional clusters of expertise. There is also a lot of lessons to be learned from the international community. The future of work is global which is why the G20 is a great venue to tackle large-scale economic issues such as digital and data transformation in a horizontal way. G20 is diverse and represents a vast proportion of the world. Leveraging its resources can allow Canada to draw connections between policy strands to foster ideas, best practices and discussions that can be taken back to Canadian institutions and molded to work best for Canadians. It is clear that cooperation at all levels is necessary moving forward

Key Opportunities / Considerations / Challenges

Artificial Intelligence (AI)
An incredible amount of innovation can be driven through AI. However, for companies moving in to the AI space, there are many unanswered questions, particularly related to privacy, and uncertainty around its capabilities and risks. As a global community we should be working towards globally recognized standards for the ethical use of AI. These standards should determine what is acceptable use of AI. The G20 is facilitating these international dialogues, bringing together likeminded nations through the OECD-expert advisory council. However, this is an opportunity for setting itself apart by establishing a trusted and ethical standard on AI that may influence global use.
Commercialization of AI
Canada must look at how it can translate its strong knowledge and investments in AI in to commercialized products and services. Canada is in a unique position in AI, largely because of its research prowess. However, Forbes Insights ranked Canada last on a list of 10 countries regarding successful adoption of AI. Moving forward, focus should be adjusted toward practical applications of AI technologies. Canada must create links between academia, industry and start-ups – identifying challenges and who is best placed to solve them. Incubators can be leveraged to focus on solutions and bringing ideas to market.
Retaining and Attracting Skilled Workers
Canada is in danger of losing our competitive advantage in AI as skilled talent, particularly in AI, are hired away by other countries offering large funding opportunities. Small AI companies are being acquired by larger international companies. Canada must focus not only on creating the talent, but retaining it through increased funding and opportunities. It must also establish Canada as a welcome country for international talent, and maintain an easy immigration mechanism for entrepreneurs.
Retaining Companies and IP
Canada has a high rate of new job and business creation in the tech sector however, struggles to keep those companies in Canada as many are acquired and move to other countries. Another issue is branch-plant economy with international companies coming to Canada to set up R&D shops, using the best minds in Canada to produce valuable IP which will be exported and doesn’t benefit Canada. Canada must find effective measures to encourage companies to grow and scale-up in Canada in order to not be left behind on technologies we helped to create.
Connectivity and Affordability
Some Canadians have no internet or mobile access whether because it is unavailable or unaffordable. Canada has an expensive telecommunications market. Incentivizing competition is key.
Digital Adoption and Participation for Underrepresented Groups
Canada must work to ensure that the benefits of the digital economy are distributed equally, and do not create a further digital divide of income, rural versus urban, gender and ethnicity. Canada must enable digitalization while addressing inequality (ie: ensuring access to training and education for underrepresented groups, addressing displacement of low-income workers). This should include strengthening the message early within the educational system on the value of STEM and tech jobs. The Labour 20 (L20), which represents the interest of workers at the G20 level, has worked on a series of proposals that attempt to address inequality that may be exacerbated by the digital divide.
While Canada is sending the right signals on the importance of digital and data transformation, many companies, namely those outside the tech industry, are still not fully understanding the impact and necessity. Canada has a risk averse culture, preferring to wait for proven examples before implementing. Canadians are also less aggressive when bringing products to market and expanding in to other markets. Finally, there is fear and uncertainty among employees who are concerned over the impact to their jobs. Many of these concerns could be alleviated through increased education on opportunities and supports to help increase adoption and lessen disruption. Canada must also diversify markets, looking beyond the US to Europe and beyond, which might be necessitated through the current geopolitical climate.

Ideas / Outcomes

The state of New York implemented new regulations in 2017 which mandates that insurers, banks and other financial services institutions establish and maintain a cybersecurity program. This protects critical infrastructure and financial services by building a cybersecurity policy that can be stress-tested. Canada could consider putting in place similar policies that require organizations to implement cybersecurity policies and measures.
Protection Around Intellectual Property (IP)
It can be costly for businesses, particularly SMEs, to fight patent and IP infringement. Canada could look to provide funding and expertise for growing businesses to fight such cases and help retain Canadian rights to IP.  
Smart Usage of Current Funding Programs
Government funding programs cannot focus strictly on SMEs for growth and must target high-growth firms. Programs must maintain a good balance of funding through direct and indirect measures (eg. Scientific Research and Experimental Development Tax Incentive), including seed funding for young tech companies balanced against later-stage capital. The Government should also continue to scale up Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP).

Attendee List

  1. Tehama
  2. Canadian Labour Congress
  3. CIO Strategy Council
  4. Institut Innovation Gatineau
  5. Mindbridge Analytics Inc.
  6. University of Ottawa
  7. Wesley Clover
  8. Accenture