Canada’s Business Growth Will be Driven by the Collaborative Economy

There are more than seven billion people on the planet right now, yet only 2.4 billion people with Internet access.

If we look closer to home, we see just under 30 million Canadians are on the Internet and, interestingly enough, we are the heaviest users of the Internet in the world. We have been spending an average of 45.6 hours online per month, compared to 40.3 hours in the US and a world average of 24.4 hours. That’s a lot of time spent online.

What’s more interesting is that online business has only accounted for $49 billion of economic activity (in 2010), amounting to only 3% of GDP, compared with 8.3% in the U.K. and 7.3% in South Korea. This level is estimated to grow to 7.4% by 2016 (source: CIRA).

If we look a little deeper, we see that today only 45.5% of Canadian businesses even have a website, with only 41.1% for small-to-medium size enterprises, which are generally considered to be more agile and quick off of the mark. Canada’s online retail economy boasts high-profile players such as Indochino and Frank & Oak, but online retailers only represent 3% of the retail economy as a whole.

We have a long way to go and the government sees that as well. Earlier this year, the Digital Canada 150 plan was released to extend and enhance high-speed Internet services for 280,000 Canadian households in rural and remote areas, to protect Canadians from malicious attacks online, and to provide refurbished computing equipment to communities. In addition, the government will provide $300 million in venture capital for digital companies and $200 million to support small and medium-sized businesses with their digital technology adoption strategies. The Honourable James Moore, the Canadian Minister for Industry, said it well:

We now live in a digital world. What connects us today are the Internet and new technologies that have created tremendous opportunities for Canadians to communicate with each other and businesses to compete globally. Our government’s top priorities are jobs and economic growth. Digital Canada 150 is a plan to take full advantage of the digital economy as we celebrate our 150th anniversary in 2017. It’s the next step to build our nation and connect Canadians to each other.

This is all well and good, but these developments alone will not deliver economic prosperity. It’s now time to rethink how we create value from these newfound extended connectivity capabilities.

History has shown us that Canadians are resourceful, inventive, and innovative, so it would seem natural to work out the best ways to enhance our communities, strengthen businesses, and plan inroads into new ways of deriving value and wealth. It’s time to reduce the time we are spending on social media platforms, videos, and entertainment and do something that will add value to our personal and Canadian economies.

Increased connectivity delivers some real tangible benefits. First, and most notably, rural communities will have more readily available access to information, connections, and communications. This access helps to bind and strengthen them at their cores, creates a platform for discussion regarding issues that matter the most, and creates even stronger ties to local and federal government. In addition, small businesses and entrepreneurs can get easier connections to supporting government programs; startup accelerators; LinkedIn, Angellist, Twitter; and other platforms that connect them with educators, influencers, funders, and potential jobs.

Over and above improved communications, and what I feel could be the most important, is the connection to the new collaborative economy that is currently transforming the world we live in. This new economy is built around the sharing of both human and physical resources, which includes the shared creation, production, distribution, trade, and consumption of goods and services by different people and organizations. We’re now seeing online businesses like eBay, Airbnb, Kijiji, Car2Go, Indiegogo, Etsy, and others disrupt traditional business models and help transform lives and communities.

In relation to transforming Canada, there are two major parts to the collaborative economy that deserve some closer attention when considering how we can empower Canadians: education and the creation of new businesses.

Over the past few years, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have entered the fray and changed the way that people attend universities, gain credits, certificates, and even earn degrees. An early leader in this space, Coursera, works with established universities to make some of their courses available online. Courses that cover physics, engineering, the humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science, and other subjects are made available to all. Leading Canadian institutions such as UBC, the University of Toronto, McMaster, and the University of Alberta have jumped on board. The resulting effect is that higher education is becoming a more democratized system overall.

The impact is big as well. Coursera has 10 million users in 839 courses from 114 institutions and, a more technical-focused company, Codeacademy, has 24 million users who had completed over 100 million exercises. And there are many more companies offering courses as well.

The bottom line is that you can literally be anywhere in Canada and get a top-rate education online as many of these courses can even be completed using your mobile devices. It’s a very democratic way to improve the knowledge and skills of individuals, communities, provinces, and Canada as a whole. That’s real power to the people.

In addition to raising the overall level of education, we also need to empower Canadians to create new businesses and get them online and providing products and services the world needs. Back in the day, we would get some money together, register a company, look for local business advice, try and hire people to help make it happen, and then get to marketing a great idea. In the collaborative economy that is no longer the way things are done.

Brian Chesky, CEO of the wildly successful Airbnb, recently articulated the state of the new world beautifully: “We used to live in a world where there are people, private citizens, a world where there are businesses, and now we’re living in a world where people can become businesses in 60 seconds.”

That seems a little crazy right? Wrong. It’s completely sensible in the new collaborative economy.

Access to online resourcing and outsourcing platforms, such as, mean that soon enough the next amazing business has just as much chance of being born out of rural Canada as it does out of urban areas. Canadians can register and tap into a talent pool of over 13.5 million people, with a variety of skills, located all over the world. Now it means that you are just a click away from the designer, web or mobile developer, social media marketer, SEO expert, blog writer, and whoever else you may need. You could even flex your skills and sign up to be a freelancer. We have hundreds of thousands of Canadians doing just that right now.

This article can’t cover all opportunities and aspects however having more access to online resources will change things for the better. We just need to remember that we have been given an ability to change the world and Canada for the better.

It’s time to turn off Netflix, YouTube, Facebook and whatever channels you spend time on, and think about education and making that big idea you have happen.