The author wishes to acknowledge support from Global Affairs Canada and the Canadian Ambassador to Israel for financial support for work undertaken resulting in a report Pivoting in an Innovation Ecosystem: Enhancing Canada’s Capacity in Israel for Collaboration and Partnerships with Canadian Academic and Industry Partners (2020).


With the rise of the innovation economy and the need to address complex grand challenges (e.g. climate change and COVID-19), Canada’s place in the world, and the manner in which the country engages globally is ever so important. The impact of globalization and shifting geopolitics, on one hand, ostensibly drives a nationalistic or internal focus, and on the other, requires global solutions and collaboration. Canada has seen many positive developments in supporting trade, and academic and private sector partnerships, in many parts of the world and building on historically close relationships. That said, Canada (government, universities and business) could be presenting itself to the world more effectively by reframing and strengthening specific bilateral agreements and programs.

Supporting bilateral relationships and trade in an innovation economy requires a shift in mindset, skills and approach. Many of the leading economies around the world have already pivoted, and are building on a deepening foundation of innovation and technological breakthroughs. Capturing an array of activities in a highly dynamic and rapidly evolving and changing ecosystem challenges us to seek synergies, break down silos and recognize the intersections and relationships that are key to success in an innovation economy. This will be particularly important post-COVID-19.

From afar, Canada is well regarded and respected, possessing many attributes that make it well poised to compete in a global economy, including a highly valued balance between government and private investments. Canada may be seen as having many of the key ingredients important to the underpinnings of an innovation economy including having a relatively high share of post-secondary (universities and colleges) graduates among working-age population, and generating greater than 4% of global knowledge, considering the country represents less than 1% of the world’s population. Companies are increasingly looking to dynamic global centres like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver where they can base their international presence and gain access to capital (e.g., TSX Ventures/Toronto Stock Exchange, pension funds), expertise (e.g., neuroscience and AI), and markets and collaborations (e.g., cybersecurity and fintech).  Canadian universities are also excellent, and our research is world class. Although the level of private-sector investment in research and development is low, Canada receives considerable praise for the level of government investments and leveraged programs.

Canada, however, still struggles to scale, evolve and retain global enterprises. Several key questions remain: Has Canada officially pivoted in our approach in the global and dynamic innovation economy, including our approach to trade and relationships that support S&T and bilateral relationships? How well do we understand the global innovation ecosystem and how are we engaging in that ecosystem? How can Canada leverage its activity in a more coordinated and strategic way?  How can universities scale international engagement with greater engagement and impact? How can we harness the important intersections of the innovation economy with government, business and universities to build relationships, triangulate multi-lateral opportunities, and to generate impact? There is an apparent gap in a broad-based policy framework that can be applied globally, perhaps with a focus supported by science and technology partnerships, and broader academic activities.

The rest of the world is quickly catching on. In contrast to the robust and dynamic range of collaborations and partnerships by Canadian researchers (as evidenced by total publications, movement of people, and impact*), Canada’s global innovation performance by numerous measures and ranking (e.g. Conference Board of Canada, Bloomberg Innovation Index, and Global Innovation Index –World Intellectual Property Organization, Cornell and INSEAD) is relatively low and has declined over the years. There is a global demand for talent, and many countries are considering ways to increase the pool of talent to fuel their economies. An entrepreneurial spirit and maturing innovation economies across eastern and northern Europe and Southeast Asia are levelling the playing field and intensifying competition.  General observation of other countries indicates their trade representatives engage in a vibrant global setting provides insights into strategies, including being in proximity to leading multinationals positioned abroad to catch the wave of talent, innovations, new collaborations and entry into other global markets. This is a clarion call to Canada to unlock the constraints, remove barriers, become more agile, nimble and streamlined, and be less risk averse in a globally dynamic innovation economy.

Unravelling the Innovation Ecosystem and Canada’s Missions Abroad

The innovation ecosystem is fast-paced and the dynamics can be dramatic. Anyone who travels abroad, even on a frequent basis, will view the innovation ecosystem in other jurisdictions at a relatively high and superficial level. As informative and interesting as this can be, to understand and penetrate the many layers of the ecosystem requires a well-developed network, relationships and friendships, as well as the time to engage and explore beyond the confines of the office and outside the prescribed standard workday. 

There are many paths to a deeper understanding of innovation globally and these can vary from region to region. The extensive presence of multinationals, and the opportunity to engage with other countries may be the most important advantages for being abroad. To be present globally may not necessarily be solely about the local markets, particularly in relatively small markets. Instead, there is technology, talent, access to multinationals, experience in scaling, capital, the door to other markets and opportunity to triangulate with other countries. When thinking about reimaging Canada’s missions for an innovation economy, there are four key considerations:

  1. Agile and Nimble

The ability to be agile and nimble is key to being able to effectively function within a highly dynamic innovation economy and ecosystem and adapting to ever-changing conditions and situations. 

  1. Adapting and Shifting Models

The Canadian Trade Accelerators (CTAs) and Trade Commission should represent Canada’s best effort; and, location matters. Programming and location(s) that create conditions for collisions that drive towards trading around intangible assets, access to expertise and capital, and preparing start-ups and SMEs for global markets. Leadership, staffing, resourcing and location are key factors that will either limit or ensure success. Is Canada in a position to appropriately frame and measure the metrics for trade in an innovation economy? What lessons can be learned from the CTA network and the Trade Commission’s experience in other countries?  

It is to our advantage to draw upon the successes and expertise within Canada when considering how to position Canada abroad. Canada has evolved a significant economy around incubation and acceleration. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, in particular, possess considerable experience in leading initiatives supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, particularly within university-based or led programs.  

There is an opportunity to bring forward in a global setting a value proposition that incorporates or includes social innovation, principles of equity, diversity and inclusion (reflected in a range of programs and initiatives aimed at women entrepreneurs), preparing talent for the future of work (availability of talent in an era of disruption) and opening inclusive pathways to the labour market.

  1. Vertically Minded and Solo vs Seeking Connections Horizontally and Collaborating

Artificial constructs, and framing efforts along verticals and domains, are typically a natural consequence of local focus and effort. The alignment of resources and effort along the particular verticals or domains can instill deep understandings and build expertise in key areas. But, it also sets conditions that builds walls, creates silos and imposes limitations on agility, nimbleness and collaboration, and results in missed opportunities.

Innovation, entrepreneurship, business and technologies cut across sectors or verticals, and looking up, down, to the side, and sometimes completely outside the box has to be part of a playbook to effectively support efforts in a global innovation economy.

  1. Sipping and Slurping at the Firehose

It is ever more common that individuals and organizations are inundated by the veracity (as well as the velocity and volume) of big data, and information more generally, and the increasing demands to be more connected, informed and effective. For Heads of Missions abroad, and for those supporting bilateral relationships, including trade, and for those seeking services to engage globally, there are two flowing ends of the firehose with which to contend. 

The problem is complex and hinges on how federal departments seek to better align, explore synergies through collaborations, streamline processes and develop a more integrated approach including their support of the missions abroad, and the Trade Commission in particular. On the ground, opening up the doors and windows with a greater external-facing focus, and fostering collaborations amongst team members would help to mitigate against the risks of not having the right information.

Higher Education and Universities 

Canada has a stronger and more defined innovation focus, such as superclusters, economic roundtable strategies and scaling SMEs, and the country’s international ascendance includes sources of capital such as banks and pension plans and talent. Universities are a key feature of this ascendency, drawing on fundamental, interdisciplinary and translational research. 

Canadian universities and key sectors also need to change their approaches in order to convey national strengths, encourage strategic collaboration and foster follow-up and implementation, to draw sufficient attention, activities and investment to Canada. The change in approach is especially important to promote more globally dynamic cities and regions to capitalize on leadership strengths in AI, cybersecurity, agri-food and biotechnology gaining greater international attention.

Universities should explore the intersections within the innovation ecosystem, and opportunities that would enhance bilateral (or multilateral) university-university and/or university-industry (business) partnerships and collaborations. Two particular aspects to this come to mind.

  1. Opportunities for joint funding not yet realized such as EU schemes or philanthropic support through the Canadian friends and alumni of universities around the world.
  2. Development of a robust and current science and technology (S&T) framework that supports the bilateral relationships that may also be more reflective of dynamic changes in the economy.

It may be that the extent that the current Science & Technology (S&T)/Innovation Framework shaping and supporting bilateral relationships is limiting. There may be other strategies that open up possibilities for framing investments in support of the international S&T focus in the key countries Canada has prioritized. Would Canada’s interests be better served by a directed allocation of funds or drawing in the constellation of investments into a pooled program directed to those priority countries? Would harnessing diasporic and philanthropic interests, or private sector funding, to country-specific initiative and/or university collaborative efforts with international partners be more effective and provide new pathways for Canada’s research universities?


The attributes of Canada’s missions abroad and Trade Commission (Global Affairs Canada), need to evolve to better reflect bilateral, multilateral relations and trade relationships in an innovation economy. There are considerable lessons to learn from the experiences in particular regions of the world and our CTAs, but there are dynamics, opportunities, and challenges for Canada’s orientation in a broader global economy.  A broad-based policy framework is required to support Canada’s efforts to unlock the constraints, remove barriers, to become more streamlined, to be more nimble and agile, and to be less risk averse in a globally dynamic innovation economy.  Addressing these challenges and exploring opportunities will require strengthening efforts and approaches by the Government of Canada, provinces, Canada’s missions abroad, organizations including CIFAR and Mitacs, universities and industry.  It is incumbent upon Canadian research universities to seize the opportunity and their role in Canada’s ascendency internationally in innovation drawing on both fundamental, interdisciplinary and translational research. There is an opportunity to explore with their international partners relationships and partnerships that transcend the collaborations of the past. There has been some early success on particular initiatives such as Canada’s leadership, for example, on the Dimensions: equity, diversity and inclusion Canada and the Dimensions Charter, support of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), leadership in advancing women in entrepreneurship and innovation, future of work, and global economic security (e.g. cybersecurity).  There are many connections and opportunities to explore in social innovation and in design that represent important aspects of entrepreneurship and innovation, and are increasingly important to economic development and sustainability goals.

*-  Wagner, C. S., and Jonkers, K. (2017). Open countries have strong science. Nature 550, 7674. doi:10.1038/550032a
Wagner Caroline S., Whetsell Travis, Baas Jeroen, Jonkers Koen. 2018. Openness and Impact of Leading Scientific Countries,
Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics 3, 10