Spurring innovation, in Canada and beyond

From AI to smart buildings, Cisco Canada’s Fast Future Innovation Awards help turn pressing challenges into real-world solutions.
Spurring innovation, in Canada and beyond

As in many countries, Canadian businesses are bursting with ideas. But turning those ideas into real-world, scalable innovations can be a challenge. That’s why Cisco has been stepping in with technology, expertise, and investments — to ensure that great ideas don’t stay on the drawing board.

A big part of that effort is the Fast Future Innovation Awards (FFIA), which are designed to spur innovation among Cisco’s core business sectors — and beyond.

We spoke with Wayne Cuervo, Director of the Cisco Canada Digital Impact Office, about this year’s awards and how spurring innovation is critical for business, society, and the world.

Thank you, Wayne! Maybe we could start with a quick overview of innovation in Canada. What’s working and what’s not?

Thanks, Kevin. Canada is a leader in many respects, including in science and education. It’s a great place to do business. And we have many forward-thinking companies.

Despite this, there is a common understanding that we are falling behind in terms of innovation and innovation investment. Historically, Canada has proven to be somewhat risk averse. Innovation is about trying new things. And not all ideas are not going to be fruitful. I think more people need to be aware that those failures are not failures; they are learnings that can lead to something even more transformative.


Partnerships and collaboration are a big part of innovation, aren’t they?

Yes, innovation doesn't happen in a vacuum. And so, you need an ecosystem to help drive it. That's where Cisco plays a key role. We don’t gatekeep innovation. We help customers drive their own innovation ambitions. We help customers understand how their business problems can be solved in new and interesting ways.


AI is top of mind everywhere, yet Cisco’s AI Readiness Index shows that only 9 percent of Canadian organizations are fully prepared to leverage it.

AI is such a huge enabler for business and will be an even greater innovation multiplier. It represents a significant inflection point for innovation, but many organizations lack the knowledge, insight, and skilled resources to deploy it successfully. Cisco has been in the AI game for over a decade. We have it embedded in our collaboration technology, our networking, our security solutions and more. So, we are coming to this conversation with a breadth of skills, knowledge, and technology. Beyond the hype and the mystery, we need strong players that can help organizations make it real. Cisco can play that role in helping our customers understand AI, consume it, and implement it safely and successfully.


What are some ways AI supports innovation and growth in Canada?

It really is transformative. With AI, we can accelerate a lot of our innovations and drive new opportunities in a way that we haven’t seen before. It will simplify a lot of tasks as well as the complexity in technology that is slowing some organizations. So, it’s an accelerator and an enabler. AI will speed innovation because new technologies can be tested and implemented much faster.


Let’s talk about the Fast Future Innovation Awards. What are they, and how did the program start?

The program started three years ago as a call to action to our customers — and an opportunity for us toto fuel the fire of innovation in Canada. Businesses are facing so much complexity and trying to figure out how to solve very real problems that impact real people. We saw an opportunity to bring the ecosystem together to support companies looking to solve some of their greatest challenges and help turn their ideas into reality. Through seed funding, we help bring winning submission to reality with whatever it takes to get there --- technology, training, resources, expertise. It’s a way for us to say to our customers, “bring us your wildest ideas.” 


What are some areas in which you focused?

In the first two years of the program, we've had really strong submissions. Each year we’ve evolved the focus to address some of the most pressing topics for businesses. In past, we have focused on sustainability, cyber security, and hybrid work. This year we’re looking at it from an AI perspective, which is obviously top of mind for everyone.


Any special qualities you look for in a company?

We look for ideas that are unique. And we ask, what would the impact be in solving this problem — for customers, the country, and society? And, of course, we like to see real energy and excitement.


What are some success stories you might highlight?

To name but two, there was a company called Maison Martin-Matte de Québec that was interested in enabling better housing for a community of people with head injuries. And we helped with smart-building solutions that made a living situation that was easier to manage, safer, and insurable.

Another, from a smart campus perspective, was McMaster University. We helped them implement Power Over Ethernet, which enabled lighting, security, environmental and other systems to run off the power of the network. We integrated all that to create a more connected, secure, and sustainable environment for students and administrators.


To your earlier point, these sound like solutions that could be scaled elsewhere around the world.

They are, and that's one of the interesting opportunities for these awards. Because if we can solve the problem for the customer, in some cases those solutions can get out into the market through partners to help others. That’s when innovation really takes off.


A lot has changed in just the past year, technology wise. What will be different about this year’s awards?

Well, we already spoke about the massive opportunity presented by AI. But we’re also more focused on bringing our partners closer to this innovation conversation. Our partner relationships are so important to Cisco. And with the great work that they are doing, we want them to be core participants in our innovation awards this year.


Cisco’s core purpose is powering an inclusive future. What long-term impacts do you think the awards could drive, for Canada and for the world?

Part of the lens that we look through when we take submissions is how the idea helps fulfill the embodiment of Cisco's vision and purpose. So, ideally, we want to find those projects where technology intersects with societal good. The whole FFIA project speaks to driving better ways of innovating, better ways of solving problems. And while we’re driving innovation across Canada, we’re excited to have inspired similar programs in other countries like the UK. It’s all about creating a better, more connected, more equitable world.

Interested Canadian businesses can submit their ideas between March 5, 2024 until April 5, 2024.

Learn more at Cisco Canada Fast Future Innovation Awards