The corridors that have come to define Canada are hardly relics. The country still depends on the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Trans-Canada Highway.
But they are the grand dreams of past centuries. For all the ways they connect Canada's vast territory, the connective tissue of its future is largely yet to be seen.
Next week, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) hopes to begin a debate about what new projects could be built to bring Canadians together in the 21st century. On Oct. 4, the management consultancy's Canadian arm will launch the CanInfra Challenge, along with partners and sponsors including Brookfield Asset Management Inc. The Globe and Mail is the media sponsor for the initiative.
The six-month public competition will seek "transformational" ideas from Canadians to solve infrastructure problems and change how the country grows, aiming not just to encourage fresh, economy-boosting ideas, but to start a national dialogue on what Canada's future will look like.
"The country needs more infrastructure, but we're not having the right conversations," said Keith Halliday, director of the BCG Centre for Canada's Future, in an interview. "We're too focused on individual projects or various pain points. We need to take a step back and say, 'What do we need to do to really move the needle?'"
BCG's research has found Canada's infrastructure investment over the past few decades "distinctly average," Mr. Halliday said. Compared with similar countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) since 1960, Canada's infrastructure investment rates have floated just above the median rate about as often as they've drifted just below, the consultancy has found. By contrast, Norway has long been near the top of the list of infrastructure spenders, while Australia, after decades of lagging, reformed its spending focus in the 1990s and became a global leader.
Ottawa is hoping to lure private investment into major public projects with the $35-billion Canada Infrastructure Bank, stretching otherwise limited government money into economy-boosting endeavours. But with the CanInfra Challenge, BCG is hoping to attract concepts bigger than the bank's purview, said Mr. Halliday, soliciting ideas that could involve other levels of government or the private sector alone.
Wednesday's event at The Globe and Mail Centre in Toronto will include workshops, expert panels and a keynote address from Finance Minister Bill Morneau. Also speaking will be Kilian Berz, senior partner and managing director with BCG; Norman Anderson, chief executive of CG/LA Infrastructure; and Susan Gray, S&P Global Ratings's global head of infrastructure. Canada Infrastructure Bank chair Janice Fukakusa is expected to attend.
Until Dec. 31, members of the private sector, academia, think tanks and the public will be able to submit infrastructure proposals that will be voted on by the public and then shortlisted next spring, when BCG and its partners will host the Canadian Transformational Infrastructure Summit.
Finalists will then make the case for their projects to a panel of experts. The winners will receive a prize – as well as a chance that some of the captains of industry in attendance might take them up on their business plan.
Mr. Halliday describes "transformational infrastructure" as not just having an economic impact, but a social and environmental one, as well. He hopes entrants embrace innovative projects of all types: perhaps a national digital-mapping utility, wind farms in unexpected places or a design for a robust, truly national, wireless network.
"I really want to stress the social inclusion part about this," he said. "There are Canadians in rural or aboriginal communities that aren't connected to the 21st-century Internet very well." More traditional ideas are welcome, too: "There are Canadians, often new Canadians, who live in some suburbs that are distant from public transit.
"One of our background objectives is to build a community of infrastructure folks in Canada, because the academics are studying it, there's government officials running their programs, the private sector's building stuff for investing. There aren't a huge number of forums to get all those people together," Mr. Halliday said.