Innovation Must Underpin Canada’s Asia Pacific Future

PM Trudeau was sworn in last November with a promise to bring Canada "back" on the global stage and to foster new ideas. It is hardly surprising, then, that our Liberal government is placing so much emphasis on 'innovation.' We have heard the term trumpeted from the rooftops by ministers, policy advisors and the private sector from St. John's to Victoria, and all stops in between. And it makes good sense. How can Canada be "back" if it isn't bringing anything new and interesting to the table?

In 2015, Canada held 2nd place in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor and tied with Australia for 12th place in the Global Innovation Index. Respectable, certainly. But as a nation, the percentage of our GDP spent on research and development fell from 1.688% in 2013 to 1.612% in 2014 — the difference netting out to roughly US$546 million. While some may consider a 0.076% decline little cause for panic, it is worth noting that this downward trend has been constant since 2009. By comparison, in 2013, the United States, Australia and China spent 2.742%, 2.114% and 2.046%, respectively. Clearly there has been a disconnect between what we can achieve as a country, and what we've been prepared to invest in innovation.

Now is the time to redefine how our nation should move forward in this increasingly tech-heavy and highly digital global landscape. How do we, in short, become an innovation nation? Our first step should be to look to our Asian partners. The Asia Pacific region boasts some of the most innovative countries in the world and is currently experiencing an explosion in digital connectivity. In 2015, the Bloomberg Innovation Index ranked nine Asian economies among the top 50 in the world. In terms of Internet penetration, India and China boast an unparalleled number of digital users and consumers, with more than 100 million and 600 million users, respectively. In Southeast Asia, it is estimated that the region gains 124,000 new Internet users every day. Not only does Asia have the financial resources to help catalyze new ideas, it has the experience scaling up these ideas to fit a wide set of consumers. This is a key step in the innovation game, and it is not going unnoticed. Just last Thursday, Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr announced that the federal government would double its spending on clean-energy research by 2020, specifically to find ways to bring Canada's emerging tech to global consumers.

Sure, Canada has been spending proportionately less on the essential R&D that brings innovation to life. But we do have our own share of innovation success stories. Look no further than the DMZ at Ryerson University, ranked the best university-based business incubator in North America in 2015. Meanwhile, Canadian institutions are increasingly looking to Asia, not just for capital and technology, but also for valuable, sustainable and fruitful partnerships. The India-Canada Centre for Innovative Multidisciplinary Partnerships to Accelerate Community Transformation and Sustainability (IC IMPACTS), in conjunction with the University of Alberta, is holding its second summer institute program this year bringing together graduate students from Canada and India to collaborate on nanotechnology research. The MaRS innovation hub in Toronto, meanwhile, has recently partnered with a Hong Kong-based technology hub called Cyberport to focus on financial tech development.

It is through this new breed of partnerships that we will climb back up the ranking ladders to become an innovation nation of global significance. Fresh technologies, new businesses and leading-edge solutions will drive Canada forward over the next decade. We need to leverage our newest talent and prepare young Canadians for the shifting geopolitical situation that is the Asia Pacific. This is how Canada comes "back," and stays there.

This piece was first published in The Globe and Mail's sponsored supplement Asia-Canada Connections on June 17, 2016.