The news out of the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland has been of celebrity appearances. Thus far, attendees have had a chance to hear Leonardo DiCaprio condemn corporate greed and Pope Francis ask business leaders to consider their own role in creating poverty.
However, another celebrity addressed the forum from its main stage on Wednesday, even if he may not immediately turn as many heads as Leo or Pope Francis. What’s more, while he didn’t speak about the global economy in such broad strokes, he did hit on a specific topic in a way that warrants consideration.
Proposing a Different Perspective on Canada
Trudeau may have a lot more in common with Leonardo DiCaprio than most politicians, with the phrase “heartthrob” getting thrown around a lot more than it has with reference to the Prime Minister of Canada since, well, his father’s time in office.
However, Trudeau used his time addressing the forum on Wednesday not to bolster his own celebrity and people’s fascination with him, but to leverage that position to begin a rebirth for the Canadian economy. More than anything else, Trudeau appeared interested in getting the global business community to rethink Canada’s economic identity, making for a sharp demarcation from his predecessor Stephen Harper.
"My predecessor wanted you to know Canada for its resources," Trudeau said during his speech. "I want you to know Canadians for our resourcefulness."
A “Fourth Industrial Revolution?”
Trudeau took time to discuss the potential for remolding the world economy, one that would reflect on issues of environmental sustainability and shifting away from a reliance on resources.
"Today, we are gathered here to contemplate whether we are in the early stages of a fourth industrial revolution. What a breathtaking possibility that is," Trudeau said. "Steam power changed the world utterly. So did electricity and more recently, computers. And now we may be on the cusp of change equal in magnitude and of a far swifter pace."
This is a particularly notable position from a man whose country is heavily reliant on the success of domestic resource companies that collectively represent about 8% of GDP. Trudeau, though, was forward-looking in his comments, envisioning a new future for his nation and the world.
He would elaborate during a Q&A portion with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that followed the speech. When Zakaria asked him whether the current low oil price environment might disrupt his ability to pursue his agenda, given that Canada is such a resource-dependent economy, Trudeau balked at the idea.
“One of the things that we’ve seen in the past…from governments around the world, is this idea that there’s an either/or between the economy and the environment, that you have to pick one, and what’s good for the economy necessarily marginalizes the environment or vice versa,” he responded. “What we see now is that people understand that you need clean growth, we need good jobs that are protecting the environment at the same time, and indeed, that’s the only way to move forward as an economy. So where we know we have elements of our economy that are based on natural resources and always will be, we need to layer on top of that the knowledge economy, the innovative extractive techniques, environmentally responsible ways of doing things, to demonstrate that we understand that balance and we’re going to continue to support that balance and create solutions for the world. The low oil prices are a challenge, but the Canadian economy is a lot more than just natural resources. We have extraordinary high tech sectors and innovative manufacturers and really strong biotech and mostly an educated, diverse workforce that is excited about participating in the global economy.”
Trudeau also made no bones about his desire to see more invested capital find its way to Canada, selling the country as one of the better places to look for opportunity.
“We’re already one of the top countries in the world when it comes to ease of doing business,” he told Zakaria. “We’re competitive in our tax rates. There is a tremendous opportunity to invest in Canada and I keep talking, including at forums like this one, about our financial, our social, our political stability, our access to markets, the great resources, the great human resources, the diversity we have — we need to be drawing in more investment to Canada, and that’s what I’m excited about talking about.”
Diversity Cited as a Major Driver for Innovation and Growth
Diversity would be a major talking point for Trudeau.
Trudeau wasn’t simply talking about a bold new economic future for the globe, he also wanted to talk about Canada’s potential to be at the center of this. As much as he discussed the broad global changes to the economy, he was speaking as a clear salesman for Canada’s role in the middle of this, citing the nation’s diversity as a major part of that evolution.
He noted how one Silicon Valley player, when asked if a particular University stood out to him for producing graduates whose ideas were driving innovation, the one school cited was the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Trudeau insisted that it was the University’s diversity, as much as anything else, that built a tendency towards innovative thinking and creativity amongst its graduates.
"It has high intellectual standards, of course," he said. "And it values entrepreneurship. But diversity is its indispensable ingredient. Waterloo's students come from everywhere. Fully half the graduate engineering students are international."
“Diversity is the engine of invention,” Trudeau said. “It generates creativity that enriches the world. We know this in Canada. Frankly, our recent election reminded us all that people can respond to a positive, inclusive vision of society. The result is creativity that enriches Canada and the world. We know this.”
A Bold Vision, but Can It Become Reality?
Trudeau’s bold vision for the future is nothing new, matching similar visions of liberal leaders from around the world. However, Trudeau is also likely nearing the point where the rubber meets the road and where lofty rhetoric alone won’t be enough. Certainly, Trudeau’s vision for the future will take a lot of work, particularly given the importance mining and oil companies play in Canada’s economy.Still, Trudeau’s poise was on display during his speech, during which he effortlessly shifted to French for an entire section. Whether he can translate that into the sort of transformational change he supports has yet to be seen.