OpEd: Innovation Is Everywhere

Agency: Switchboard PR

Working with Switchboard and Accelerate Okanagan, I ghostwrote this OpEd for Accelerate Okanagan CEO Raghwa Gopal. You can see the OpEd in the Vancouver Sun here, or read it below. 

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Raghwa Gopal: Technology and innovation is everywhere, so we need all hands on deck

Technology is so ubiquitous these days it’s almost become invisible. If the technological advancements of just the last 20 years were to suddenly disappear from our lives, even for a day, what would that look like? Even if we could get ourselves out the door and to work, what would our day look like? Could we do our jobs? Probably not — or at least not well.

That’s because technology has completely revolutionized the way we do almost everything in our lives — the way we bank, the way we buy and sell, the way we communicate; the food we eat, the cars we drive, the way we heat and cool our homes. The reality is, the concept of a “tech sector” doesn’t quite ring true.

As B.C. Premier John Horgan has said, “Technology is not its own sector. It is much, much more than that. Every sector of the economy benefits from technology. We are seeing innovation and technology that was unimaginable 20 or 30 years ago in almost every sector.”

Calling technology or innovation a sector suggests that it’s vertical in nature and exists in parallel with other sectors and industries, like resources, healthcare, agriculture or entertainment. Instead we believe technology to be inextricably embedded within those industries, and every other. Today, to some extent, every company in every industry is powered by technology and innovation.

Does that mean eventually every company will be a tech company? Maybe.

Take Ritchie Brothers, one of the Okanagan’s great success stories. When you hear Ritchie Brothers, you probably think auctioneer — specifically, the world’s largest heavy equipment auctioneer, founded in Kelowna in 1958. But to some extent Ritchie Brothers is also a tech company — so much so that earlier this month it competed against software companies for B.C. Tech Company of the Year at the Technology Impact Awards. Ritchie’s leadership team clearly saw that to realize their vision, they needed to not only embrace digital technology, but embed it into their mission and strategy, and even pioneer new innovation. In 2002, they were among the first to introduce virtual online bidding at their auctions. Today, Ritchie’s digital presence transacts over $2.2 billion US a year and requires a tech team of over 300.

It’s time to broaden our idea of what a technology company is, as well as what the technology workforce looks like. It’s not all 20-something men in hoodies, designing apps from bean bag chairs in Silicon Valley. That might be what we hear about most often when we talk about tech and innovation, but it’s a very small part of a very big picture.

Innovation is happening everywhere. It’s happening here in the Okanagan, right now. It’s happening in our orchards and our lakes, in our hospitals and banks and factories. It’s improving health outcomes and reversing environmental damage. It’s happening in apps and computing, yes; but it’s also clean tech, agritech, advanced manufacturing, gaming and animation, medtech, fintech and aerospace.

What does that mean for the Okanagan tech industry? It means our region is ripe with potential. It means we’re just getting started as an emerging tech ecosystem. And it means that the challenges we’re facing now — access to capital and talent in particular — are only going to get more challenging. Today, our province’s tech sector employs 105,000 people, and another 50,000 work in tech-related jobs in other industries. Approximately 7,600 of those jobs were located in the Okanagan, according to the 2015 Economic Impact Study — and the industry’s growth rate was projected to be 15 per cent year over year.

We need to get serious — and strategic — about ensuring access to capital and about training, recruiting and nurturing talent with the skills this new economy relies on. This isn’t news to tech companies or to post-secondary institutions or government. We’ve all been working away at these challenges for years. But we all need to work harder, smarter and faster if we’re going to keep up with the staggering rate at which technology moves. And we need to work together.

We need to double down on our efforts to ensure that our talent pipeline is positively bursting with eager, skilled individuals. And if these are the skills that are going to open doors across sectors, we need to ensure that no one is left behind, and be even more deliberate in our efforts to incorporate women and girls, Indigenous populations, new Canadians, marginalized groups and those at a socioeconomic disadvantage. If every company is going to be a tech company, we’re going to need all hands on deck.

If we do this well, in 20 years the perception of technology and tech workers is sure to change. There will be no more stereotypes, because we will all know that innovation is everywhere, and that the workforce powering innovation in our vineyards and auction houses and hospitals and across every other sector is just as diverse as our population.