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Canada 3.0 Blog

Monday, April 20, 2009

Keeping Our Eyes Open

Achihabara is a gadget-lovers paradise. A few blocks square, this vibrant commercial district in Tokyo is one of the most important digital environments on the planet. Canadians, dependant on Future Shop, The Source, and eBay, can only look with envy on this remarkable intersection of commerce, youth culture and technological innovation.

Everyone knows that the economy is now globalized and that new technologies can sweep across the world with stunning speed. This is how Taiwan emerged quickly as a major player in the digital sector, how Finland and Nokia became globally competitive, and how RIM's Blackberry became as commonplace in Croatia as in North America.

Unlike many competitor nations, which devote a great deal of effort to observing and responding to global developments, Canada and the United States are comparatively complacent. There is a tendency to over-estimate the degree to which the continental market is competitive with other countries and an assumption that the digital technology available in North America is cutting edge. The truth, however, ismarkedly different.

In the mobile phone field, Europe and Asia have pushed the technologies and markets further and faster. While Americans now get to play with the Kindle (Amazon's electronic book, not yet available in Canada), the Japanese have had e-books for cellphones for several years and readily available kiosks to download books onto Japanese-built readers. There are many such examples.

And there is an unusual twist. Because of the size of the Canadian market and difficulties rolling out products in this country, it is not uncommon for Canadian-made products and services to surface first in other countries. In general, and on both the producer/service delivery and consumer sides of the digital market, Canadians and Americans are not at the leading edge of innovation.

Competing in a global market requires global awareness. The larger firms - like RIM and Open Text - know this simple truth and devote considerable effort (and benefit from overseas offices) to staying abreast of developments. At the start-up phase and when new companies are just getting off the ground, finding such international intelligence is extremely difficult. While some of the material is available from industry websites and the popular press, most of the time-critical information is available only in other languages.

China, for example, has been described as a "silicon dragon" by industry observers. The country has made a strong public and private sector commitment to research and development in the field. Hundreds of Western firms have research operations in China, hoping to tap into the talent pool, make inroads into a growing and potentially huge market and to gain access to scientific and technological innovations made in China. Canadian companies active in the digital sector would be well-advised to pay careful attention to China competitors and to keep alert for Chinese products that could be sold in North America and for market niches in the fast-changing Chinese market.

Canada's multicultural population has long been seen as a potential - but unrealized- advantage in the international economy. Some new Canadians, after all, have the language and cultural skills necessary to monitor, understand and anticipate developments in their home countries. They could be mobilized to help Canadian companies keep abreast of global developments and identify commercial opportunities or threats emerging in other countries. As a country, we have not yet found the right mechanism for creating such global intelligence, in large measure because of the challenges individual companies (particularly the small and the vulnerable) face in supporting and sustaining true global awareness.

Global economies create both global opportunities and global threats. Finding a way- individually and collectively - to monitor international developments will prove critical to the long-term viability and competitiveness of Canadian digital media firms.

Ken Coates
Dean of Arts, University of Waterloo

1 comment:

  1. Interesting observations on the global implications of our technology innovation.. thanks.

    I'm working on the Enterprise 2.0 strategy with Open Text, and have been hearing some fascinating use-cases from our creative customers about using rich media (video, images, etc) to transcend language barriers across their global work teams... a new world indeed. Very cool to be part of the Canadian tech community making this happen.