What makes a good corporate citizen? In the Cisco Canada schema, giving back involves a series of initiatives to kick start Canadian productivity. The company’s focus on productivity has been inspired by some gripping statistics that do not loose impact for the retelling. As Cisco Canada president Nitin Kawale has noted, in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index 2012-13 rankings, Canada has slipped (again) to 14th place overall, and though considered among the ranks of the “innovation driven” economies, has dropped to 22nd place in the sophistication with which it supports innovation. In explaining their reassessment of Canada’s competitiveness, authors of the Index pointed to “a less favorable assessment of the quality of its research institutions and the government’s role in promoting innovation through procurement practices… [as well as] a slight downward trend of its performance in higher education, driven by lower university enrollment rates and a decline in the extent to which staff is being trained at the workplace.”
Perhaps of greatest concern to a technology vendor, the Global Index now ranks Canada 18th in its ability to use ICT to drive productivity. This decline may be viewed as a source of inertia or inspiration. Cisco has chosen the latter course, urging the private sector and technologists to play their role in enhancing Canadian competitiveness. As Kawale argued at the recent Cisco Canada Connect Toronto event, ICT has enormous potential to affect change. Over the past 20 years, he explained, technology has produced a fundamental shift in the way business operates and humans interact — through “connecting less than one percent of things.” Even with the Internet of Everything, 99 percent of the world remains unconnected: “we’ve just scratched the surface,” Kawale observed, “if we connect the rest… the possibilities are mesmerizing.”In terms of Cisco’s unique responsibility to “put Canada on the map of innovation,” Kawale has outlined a five pronged strategy that begins by addressing the primary weakness identified by the World Economic Forum — a need to bolster research — and follows through with programs designed to commercialize innovation. The Cisco program has been remarkable for both the pace of execution and the level of investment in areas that target Canadian strengths. This innovation agenda and some specific examples are as follows.
Increase the R&D footprint: Having convinced San Jose headquarters that Canada was a good place to invest — to create a ‘Cisco North’— the Canadian operation was able in 2011 to sign a MOU with the McGuinty government aimed at cooperation on tech R&D to drive Ontario’s macro-economic and employment goals. The agreement committed Cisco Canada to invest up to $455 million over the next five years for R&D focused on Cisco core routing and switching, collaboration, data centre virtualization, cloud and video technologies which would translate into 300 new R&D jobs concentrated in Cisco’s Kanata research facilities. According to Kawale, “the next investment [to be announced] will be even more significant.”
Establishment of research chairs: Cisco has mounted an aggressive campaign to stimulate research activity across the Canadian academic landscape by funding chairs in disciplines that may support the development of opportunity for Cisco technologies — but that also play to the academic strengths of various institutions and to regional economic needs. Last year, for example, the company invested $2 million over 10 years to establish a Research Chair in Mining Solutions in Saskatchewan, an equivalent investment for a Research Chair in e-Governance located within the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Regina, and $1 million over five years for a new Cisco Research Chair in Smart Grid at the University of Waterloo — commitments that expand on existing relationships with the University of New Brunswick for a chair in advanced learning technologies and the University of Winnipeg for the creation of 34 research and teaching labs to support commercialization research at the university’s science complex.This May, Cisco announced a new kind of academic initiative designed to address shortages of Canadian students enrolled in STEM subject areas. Through a $1 million investment of products, funding and staff time to Sheridan College, Cisco Canada is looking to facilitate collaboration between Sheridan students and faculty, but also to excite very young students engaged in the study of math, science and technology. As ICT director, Sheridan College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning John McCormack explained, Sheridan’s “vision is to improve the educational experience for children, and inspire ongoing learning,” a goal that is being enabled through support for the VROC, the Virtual Researcher On Call program.
Launched seven years ago by the Partners In Research group, VROC uses collaboration technologies, such as TelePresence, to connect students in the Toronto District School Board with university subject matter experts who can answer spontaneous questions or mentor in a more formalized way. According to Kevin Cougler, executive director of Partners In Research, TDSB teachers and students have had really good experiences with the program, which has also provided an efficient means for university professors to conduct outreach, particularly among students in remote regions. In addition to the Toronto pilot, VROC is running a program in Alberta and has one connection point established in Nunavut. Ultimately, Partners in Research is hoping to deliver across Canada, and will need to translate its current hundred experts into thousands.
Support for Innovation Centres: In addition to hosting its own facilities, such as the Innovation Lab at Cisco headquarters in Toronto, Cisco also provides support for independent incubation centres to accelerate commercialization activities. For example, in addition to funding for the Vancouver Island Technology Park, the company has also established the Cisco Incubation Centre, located in the University of Waterloo’s David Johnston Research + Technology Park, providing Cisco technology to enable global collaboration and offer access to Cisco expertise and its global partner ecosystem to local start-ups and students. “It’s early days,” Kawale explained, but ultimately, the company plans to “be the glue and the catalyst, to use collaboration technologies, such as TelePresence, to draw all the incubation centres in public sector and private sector networks together.”
Creation of an investment fund: Cisco is currently in the process of establishing a venture capital fund to support the commercialization of innovation, and will act as a limited partner in order to participate in the spectrum of investment options, from early stage to all out acquisition. According to Kawale, “we want to make sure that those investments stay in Canada, and that we are partnering with the right people, so that we are not reproducing what Cisco is doing in other jurisdictions.” Deciding who might be an appropriate partner is “not immediately obvious,” he noted, “given the state of the VC industry.” But places that Cisco is looking include Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s “fund of funds” and “industries that can materially impact the Canadian economy such as oil & gas, mining or manufacturing…”
Smart+Connected Communities: Cisco Canada has devoted considerable time and effort to generating enthusiasm for the notion of “Smart+Connected Communities,” and has achieved considerable success with municipal governments such as Stratford, Ontario which has managed to translate high speed broadband infrastructure into new economic opportunity for the region. It has also invested in the construction of Smart+Connected Real Estate showcases. The PwC tower at 18 York St. and the new George Brown Waterfront Campus in Toronto, for example, have been built on a Cisco IP-enabled networking backbone to enable new levels of collaboration and building system management efficiency.
This May, Cisco announced its latest venture – a $ 1 million investment in an agreement with the University of British Columbia (UBC) to collaborate on smart energy technologies and converged network solutions. A key piece of the agreement entails Cisco involvement in the university’s Campus as a Living Lab initiative in order to accelerate the development, demonstration and commercialization of new technologies and solutions. The ultimate goal is to help create smarter, more energy-efficient buildings while identifying best practices to reduce UBC’s net greenhouse gas emissions and associated carbon costs.
This agreement offers a good example of the mutual benefit that can be achieved with good partner fit: designed to support UBC energy/carbon expertise – the Living Lab, for example, is piloting micro grid research – work through the Living Lab will also offer opportunity to develop, test and commercialize solutions in Cisco’s Smart+Connected Communities, Smart+Connected Real Estate and energy management areas. Specific research initiatives will include: creation of a campus-wide smart energy system to integrate energy generation, demand and supply to buildings at UBC’s Vancouver campus, integration of all building systems, such as environmental controls, security, lighting, energy, video, fire and life safety, onto a converged network solution, collaboration with multiple building solution manufacturers on the development of new building automation devices using Cisco Universal Power Over Ethernet and Cisco EnergyWise software development kits, and exploration of “building-scale demonstration and evaluation of converged network solutions.”
A recurring thread in each of these five programs is investment to drive Canadian economic activity, with Cisco technology innovation in the starring role. As Kawale noted, “it has to be a win, win, win” for Canadian researchers, for Canadian businesses and for Cisco, which benefits from brand identification with productivity enhancement, and from increased profile in targeted communities, industries and government. “If we actually hit a home run between the Research Chairs and the Innovation Centres, this should produce spin off economic activity – new companies, new ideas and an ecosystem around the Cisco technology. This takes us a step closer to becoming the number one, relevant IT company in the nation.” A win indeed.
This report is based on a review of Cisco Canada CSR activities over the past two years, as well as interviews with Nitin Kawale, conducted at the Cisco Partner Summit 2013 in Boston, MA and at Cisco Connect Toronto 2013.