As the global economic recession matures and signs makes this race particularly difficult is that the hurdles can of recovery emerge, Canada’s opportunities are many. While every company and industry has fared differently, the objectives for Canadian companies and for our economy as a whole remain unchanged from the days before this most recent downturn. Our focus must be on winning the global competition for new business and investment, nurturing and growing great companies and growing, attracting and retaining the best global talent.

My company, Microsoft Canada, has been engaged in the conversation about Canadian competitiveness for a decade, not only through our day-to-day work of helping Canadian companies improve their productivity and become more innovative, but also through a regular dialogue with the best and brightest minds in Canadian academia, business and government.

I think of business as a little like a never ending 400metre hurdle relay. For a team stay in the race, the baton has to be passed — not only from one person to another, but from one generation to another and from one government to another — without anyone ever dropping it. And what move up and down without warning.

Over the past year, something extraordinary has happened. All of the hurdles rose at once, and no matter where you were in the race, everyone fell. Of course, some fell harder than others. Some suffered mild injuries, others more serious ones.

Now, everyone is starting to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and assess their situation. But we’re all looking around at the other racers too — to see how hard they fell and whether we can make up some ground.

Comparatively speaking, Canada looks to be in good shape. While no one can deny the pain of the global recession, it is generally accepted that this country has weathered the storm better than most, likely for a couple of reasons.

First, our financial sector is in pretty good shape. That has all kinds of benefits, but one of the greatest is that capital is still pretty accessible here. So entrepreneurs and companies who wish to invest may have an easier time doing so here.

Second, we are a country that has many of the softer qualities that are needed to compete. We are a great example of the “creative class” — Richard Florida’s concept of the kind of society that attracts the best and brightest in a globally competitive marketplace. We have a stellar quality of life, we are a tolerant society, we have culturally rich metropolitan centres, we have a great education system and we have a gorgeous landscape. These are all important to an increasingly mobile creative class, which, in turn, is a central component in our ability to compete, because competition is all about having the right, smart, skilled people.

Others countries face more difficult challenges. The European Union recently warned Britain, Greece, Spain, Ireland and Latvia that rising public sector debt and aging populations are putting their economies in “high risk.”

Still others, like Australia, are faring quite well. Because of strong commodities trade with China and sound fiscal and monetary policies, Australia has avoided the worst of the global recession and is not facing the kinds of high unemployment that are endemic around the world.

I believe that in Canada, it’s time to pick up the baton and get running. Not only because of our relative advantage, but because we also have a pretty good idea of what we need to do. We have studied innovation and productivity for at least a decade, and there is broad consensus around things like investing in R&D and education, attracting skilled workers and reforming immigration policies, reducing interprovincial trade barriers and incenting business to invest more in innovation.

Given where we’re at in this lifelong hurdle relay, we need to act now. My particular vantage point on what we need to do focuses on technology, because technology innovation is the key to improving productivity, and productivity growth is the central driver of economic prosperity.

But what is technology innovation? From my conversations with people, I think most of us tend to think of it as a group of people working in a basement to create transformative technologies like the first personal computer, or the first operating system.

But I’d like us all to think smaller. Much smaller. I believe that innovation is simply about people exercising their creativity to solve problems. That’s it. Figuring out how to help your team collaborate better on projects is just as innovative as mapping the human genome. What’s important is not the size of the problem, but the creativity applied to it.

The thing that gets me really energized about technology innovation is that I believe it matters more today than it has in decades. This kind of statement can sound self serving from the president of a software company, but the evidence is clear.

There are two trends in this area that are self-reinforcing.

The first is purely about technology. There is an unprecedented wave of innovation on the immediate horizon. These innovations will fundamentally change the way all Canadians work, live, communicate and entertain themselves. Entire business models will disappear and new ones will be created. This isn’t an easy argument to make to people because while technology innovations build upon one another exponentially, our rational minds tend to move in a linear fashion. But think of it this way. If I take 30 steps forward, I move 30 paces. If I take 30 exponential steps forward, I’ll move about a billion paces.

In the next few years, technology will move a billion paces forward, but our minds can really contemplate only the next 30 steps.

Over the past year, something extraordinary has happened. All of the hurdles rose at once, and no matter where you were in the race, everyone fell. Of course, some fell harder than others. Some suffered mild injuries, others more serious ones.

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Here’s what’s coming. Many of the things that we all take for granted and that have always been part of our lives are going to disappear. Television, the phone and even the personal computer will all become obsolete — at least in the forms we know today. We think of these things as devices or appliances, when in fact they are activities. In the very near future our homes, cars, offices and pockets will all contain different-sized screens, and each of these screens will be able to accommodate each of the tasks I described above.

If you want to watch TV you’ll be able to do it on the screen in your living room, on the one you carry in your pocket or on the one in your office. If you want to make a call, same thing. If you need to finish that spreadsheet, you’ll do it as comfortably on what you now think of as the TV in your living room as on the screen on your office desk.

At the same time, the way you interact with technology will change completely. We are moving to more intuitive technology: where you don’t go searching for information, but instead, it’s offered up to you, already sorted and relevant, based on your needs.

And finally, entire businesses and industries will be radically transformed. Some will even disappear. The media? Totally transformed. Manufacturing and resource industries? Very different tomorrow than today. Health care? Completely overhauled.

The second trend that really makes technology matter is that people are changing too. The first generation of people to be born into a world where computers, software and mobile devices were everywhere are just beginning to enter the workforce.

The rest of us have learned as we went. But the world older Canadians live in isn’t the world they were born into. And we’re learning that these young people aren’t just technologically literate; they seem to be wired a little differently because they’ve never known a world without technology.

This means they have different expectations than previous generations. It means that they expect and demand technological advancement all the time. It means that they’re not afraid of change. It means that the pace of change will continue to accelerate.

These two trends — massive technological innovation coupled with the genuinely different expectations of a new generation — reinforce one another. And together they mean that technology really matters as a driver of innovation. They also mean that Canada cannot fall behind if we wish to remain competitive.

An enormous amount of time has been devoted to talking about our country’s challenges in the areas of innovation and productivity. What is required now — especially now, during this economic reset — is action.

Here is an agenda for action that I believe we can all support.

First, Canadian companies must remain engaged and connected with their peers, with government and with academia on these issues. As is often the case a year into any trend, fatigue sets in, and the issues begin to recede from the front pages and from policy discussions. If Canada wishes to stay in this race, we cannot allow our attention to slip.

Second, businesses must be open to risk taking. One of the things the research shows is that Canadian companies are more risk averse than their US counterparts, but we all know that rewards are often commensurate with the risks taken.

And finally, governments must take their proper place as leaders and visionaries for an innovative, productive and prosperous Canada. They must guide this process by setting real goals that the nation can measure itself against, and milestones that we can celebrate.

While the hurdles are starting to come down to more manageable heights, we’re still in a race. In fact, the pace is accelerating as more and more competitors pick themselves up, grab the baton and start again for the finish line that never comes.

Through a combination of good planning, smart decision-making and even some luck, I believe that Canada will emerge from the turmoil of today a little bit ahead of some of the competition. But leads can change quickly. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we take advantage of every opportunity and realize our full potential, as businesses and as a nation.

Photo: Shutterstock

Eric Gales is president of Microsoft Canada.

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