01/26/2017 07:40 EST | Updated 01/26/2017 07:40 EST

Canada Must Give Itself The Gift Of Innovation

Chris Wattie / Reuters
The Canadian Forces Snowbirds aerobatic team fly past the Peace Tower during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

A poll by the Government of Canada, recently made public, shows Canadians are more inclined to spend their tax dollars on traditional infrastructure, like roads and public transportation, rather than high-tech infrastructure because they believe the former will grow the economy and create jobs.

It's understandable why taxpayers may prioritize investment this way. Ensuring that the Gardiner Expressway is in a good state of repair and public transit is growing are things that are critical to the functioning of Torontonians' daily lives. Physical infrastructure also has the benefit of its economic returns being familiar and immediately visible. And when it doesn't function the way it should, citizens feel the fallout immediately. There's also no doubt that infrastructure spending leads to jobs.

But the question we need to ask ourselves when we think about investment in our country -- and ultimately the lives of Canadians -- is what kind of world will we be living in 50 years from now, and how can we ensure we're ready for it and able to thrive as citizens and a nation?

This debate isn't a new one. When Sir John A. MacDonald unveiled his National Policy in 1876, he championed a vision for Canadian Pacific Railway's transcontinental line. The idea received a great deal of criticism initially, but the railway is now viewed as a critical building block of Canada. It linked east with west, facilitated communications and the transportation of goods between Canada's previously fractured regions, and helped the country compete internationally. High tech now, like the railway then, is the great connector and a key part of our country's competitive advantage and economic future. We must invest in it or risk getting left behind.

Technology is no longer a tactic in business, it's an imperative to the overarching strategy of any organization, and it's critical to thrive in an era where any business risks getting "Uberized." As an employee, digital literacy and skills are tantamount to staying relevant and employable in today's digital world.

At a macro level, technology is one of the fastest growing sectors of the Canadian economy in terms of GDP output. From 2007 to 2014, Information Communications Technology sector revenues grew from $133.4 billion to $169.8 billion, a 27.2% increase. According to The Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University, the technology sector was responsible for 7.1% of Canada's real economic output in 2015. The study also notes that the sector's growth has been steady over the last few years -- lacking the volatility of other industries -- a good indicator of future growth.

The Global Innovation Index in 2016 ranked Canada as the 15th most innovative country in the world. This is good. However, a central finding of the same report is that "investments in research and development and innovation are central for economic growth" and the index noted that Canada is lagging when it comes to research and development expenditure.

It's easy to think about new technology and innovation in futuristic terms, but today's high school students will soon live in an economy with jobs anchored in technologies their parents would likely have seen as science fiction - everything from nanotechnology to AI to driverless cars. We stand at a tipping point.

"Planning today for the infrastructure of tomorrow will ensure the generations who celebrate our 300th birthday will do so in a prosperous, competitive nation."

According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of kids today will have jobs that haven't been invented yet. We're only scratching the surface when it comes to innovation. We owe it to future generations to lay the foundation to help them become skilled and competitive in a technology economy.

The current Federal Government has an innovation agenda, which includes bringing high speed internet to more than 300 communities and investing up to $2 billion to accelerate infrastructure projects at universities and colleges. So does Toronto's Mayor John Tory, and it's important that this collective focus at multiple government levels grows, expands and continues to gain momentum.

For our part, Salesforce in Canada offers free high tech training through Trailhead, which trains participants on Salesforce expertise, helping prepare Canadians for the nearly 30,000 Salesforce-based jobs projected to be created in the country between now and 2018. But there's much more to do to keep pace with the continued digitization of the economy, and investment in the required infrastructure is critical to all efforts.

This year is Canada's 150th birthday. The innovation agenda is our generation's transcontinental line, linking us all together. Planning today for the infrastructure of tomorrow will ensure the generations who celebrate our 300th birthday will do so in a prosperous, competitive nation.

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