This pandemic could be Canada’s defining innovation opportunity — if we seize it

May 25, 2020

By: Jennifer Flanagan

COVID-19 is everything right now, but what will happen when it isn’t? What will our country look like on the other side? While so much of this pandemic is outside of our control, we have a unique opportunity to decide what happens next. And though we won’t forget the immeasurable suffering and loss, we must also remember that many of history’s greatest tragedies have birthed its greatest renaissances. COVID-19 can be a tragedy and only that, or it can be a tragedy and the moment that defines Canada as an innovation powerhouse on the global stage. To achieve the latter, we must take action to seize the opportunity.

Read the news on any given day, and amid stories of layoffs and supply shortages, you’ll also find heroic stories of Canadians coming together to solve problems. You’ll see Canadian companies moving quickly to develop life-saving products — from Canada Goose making hospital gowns, InkSmith creating the Canadian Shield, to Labatt Breweries of Canada making hand sanitizer — and governments moving mountains to bring initiatives to life.

Out of necessity, and with impossible timelines and pressure, the private sector has joined forces with governments to develop everything from new personal protective equipment to testing and vaccines.

With support from sources like the Ontario Together Fund, this country’s design, tech and manufacturing sectors, have pivoted rapidly to fill an immediate need to contain, identify, and fight the impacts of the pandemic, highlighting our nation’s resilience in the face of mass adversity.

It is the best of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and it’s amazing to see. But, as the leader of a STEM youth outreach organization for over two decades, I know these incredible pivots are only possible thanks to our existing innovation ecosystem made up of public sector institutions, private sector businesses, and academic organizations offering business resources and support services that drive entrepreneurship and innovation.

I also know that before COVID-19 hit, leaders in this space were calling for stronger government leadership, strengthened strategic partnerships, increased diversity and decreased siloing. In order to make use of this innovation opportunity, the need to address these issues is more critical than ever before.

We can look to Japan and Germany as examples. Not only did they rebuild after the devastation of World War II, they went on to become two of the world’s strongest economic powers and innovation leaders. The success of these two countries was achieved in part by leveraging cutting edge science and tech, born of necessity, using improved collaboration between educational and research institutions, private entrepreneurs and government — both nationally and internationally.

The goal of Canada’s innovation ecosystem is to provide a resource rich environment where businesses can start and scale into competitive players on the global stage — one which now includes robot nurses, a cavalry of machine-learning experts and virus-based classical music composed by artificial-intelligence. But we need to ensure our innovation ecosystem is strong in order to compete.

There are a number of ways we can strengthen our innovation ecosystem. The one that’s critical yet often overlooked includes skill development and education for youth. Organizations that teach 21st century skills, such as STEM literacy and problem solving, are fueling the human capital required to propel Canada’s innovation potential and global competitiveness.

STEM is instrumental in fighting this disease and innovation will be the key to how fast we get it done. To fight global challenges, now and in the future, we must prioritize youth skills and confidence in STEM. This will require increased government funding, as well as private sector partnerships with organizations providing STEM programs for youth. Having both the public and private sector at the table will lead to a stronger innovation ecosystem and, therefore, a brighter, healthier future for all Canadians.

The tragedy of COVID-19 will never be forgotten. But this pandemic has also forced Canada to flex its innovation muscles, demonstrating our ability to lead on the global stage. This is an opportunity for Canada to emerge more resilient and more capable. If we want to seize it, we must first prepare our infrastructure to support accelerated growth — and STEM youth education is the most thoughtful place to start.