Is Canada’s technology sector picking a fight with construction?
That was the impression left by one of Canada’s leading tech voices in a June 2 op-ed in the National Post.
In the column, Jim Balsillie, who chairs the Council of Canadian Innovators, makes an impassioned argument that any post-COVID-19 federal stimulus plan should abandon or dramatically reduce its focus on infrastructure investment and instead focus much of its agenda on support for Canadian technology firms.
According to Balsillie, “Using a traditional ‘shovel-ready physical infrastructure’ lens — whether roads, bridges or hockey rinks — to stimulate demand and drive productivity has no traction in a 21st-century global economy where intellectual property (IP) and data are the most valuable business and national security assets.”
That Canada’s technology sector should position itself to capitalize on federal support during the economic recovery makes sense. Canadian tech has not been this strong since the days of Nortel and Balsillie’s own Research In Motion (RIM). The coronavirus has ushered in countless opportunities for innovation and growth from which Canadian firms can benefit immensely. This could well be a game-changing moment for the Canadian technology sector.
But Balsillie’s pitch for tech support, explicitly at the expense of Canada’s infrastructure construction industry, is unnecessary, economically short sighted and politically dangerous.
In my own career, I have spent over a decade in the technology sector and another decade in construction.
I have seen firsthand how these industries support each other. Construction is dramatically safer today than even 10 years ago thanks to Canadian tech. And Canadian tech has flourished thanks to the broadband and data infrastructure built by Canadian construction.
Today, my company helps leaders in construction, tech and other industries optimize the performance of their organizations. And from that work the evidence is clear: construction investment and technological innovation are complementary ingredients that spur business performance success and growth.
The pandemic will necessitate massive technological and operational change in Canada’s construction industry. Instead of drawing battle lines, why not harness that opportunity by pairing proven infrastructure stimulus investments with innovative, made-in-Canada tech to drive growth in both sectors? Why not make Canadian infrastructure a market and laboratory for Canadian tech rather than an adversary?
The recent failed Sidewalk Labs venture exposed several weaknesses in Canada’s readiness to embrace innovative urban development. But the construction industry’s support for Canadian tech was not one of them. Leading construction labour and employer voices were front and centre championing that project from the beginning.
Construction is an ally for Canadian tech, not an enemy.
The COVID-19 crisis has emerged in Canada at a time of regional and economic fragility in our country. Sentiments of Western Canadian alienation have not been this strong in decades. Populism and urban/rural divides continue to expand. Environmental and resource sector interests remain at odds. Economic inequality is pervasive.
The last thing Canada needs right now is a new fight between the population groups and industries supporting Canadian construction and Canadian tech.
Construction industry leaders and advocates should mobilize now and urge policy-makers at all levels of government to resist pitting one sector of our economy against another.
Instead, let us seize the opportunity to leverage national strengths in both construction and technology for the benefit of all Canadians.
Sean Reid is president and head coach at Arrowhead Coaching and Facilitation Solutions, a coaching and consulting company committed to helping leaders build remarkable organizations with clarity and confidence. Send comments and Industry Perspectives op-ed ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.