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Canada's development as a nation has been marked by a series of big infrastructure projects. There were the Welland and Rideau Canals in the 1830s, the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, the TransCanada pipeline and St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s, and the CANDU nuclear-power reactors in the 1970s.

Canada as a country has always been too big geographically to think small in terms of infrastructure projects. At the time they were built, for instance, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the TransCanada pipeline were each the longest in the world. Yet, by taking on such grand challenges, we forged critical connections, opened new markets and generated economic opportunities that we continue to enjoy today.

Well-designed infrastructure projects can contribute to long-lasting gains in productivity and economic activity. But the benefits are not merely economic. Infrastructure such as green power and smart transportation grids can enhance our environment by reducing air pollution. Infrastructure can also connect isolated rural communities by providing services such as transport, clean water and broadband mobile.

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Unfortunately, however, analysis indicates that Canada lags its international peers in infrastructure spending. Despite our vast territorial size, we invest less per capita than other countries on transportation, energy, waste, water, utilities and communications. Canada's infrastructure deficit compared to its needs is estimated to grow to as much as $200-$300-billion by 2025.

Canada needs to identify big ideas that will advance economic growth, productivity and environmental preservation. We need transformational infrastructure projects that will allow us to take advantage of future technologies. And we need the will to get these projects done.

What do we mean by transformational infrastructure projects? Let us offer an example: In the first part of the past century, Toronto's Commissioner of Public Works, R. C. Harris, championed the construction of a controversial project to connect Toronto east and west of the Don Valley.

The Bloor Street Viaduct, completed in 1918, included a lower deck for subway trains—trains that would not appear for another 50 years. When the Bloor-Danforth subway line was constructed in the 1960s, Harris had been dead for 20 years, but his infrastructure foresight saved the city many millions of dollars in design and construction costs.

What can we build now that will contribute to Canada's growth for the next 100 years? What grand challenges should we embrace?

What about a ubiquitous data network that would allow autonomous vehicles to interact in real time – yet be safe; or a secure data utility that would allow researchers to mine government, health, commercial and other data to develop the next cures or market innovations? Could we develop zero-emission mass transit for Canada's large urban areas?

We invite the country to a national debate on transformational infrastructure ideas for Canada's future. Join the CanInfra Challenge (CanInfra.ca) and help discover our biggest, most important opportunities.

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There are challenges to taking transformational infrastructure ideas forward. We must prioritize, finance, construct and operate these big infrastructure projects. Projects often face the challenges of overcoming lengthy approval and regulatory processes, constrained government budgets, institutional barriers on private capital and public opposition to private revenue streams. Progress involves strong governance as well as appropriate risk sharing in private-public partnerships. These are not trivial matters. It took 20 years of negotiations before the St. Lawrence Seaway could be built.

But for now, let's just get started. Let's get the big ideas flowing. If we work together we can build the infrastructure vision for future generations that can help address Canada's most pressing economic, environmental and social challenges.

When it comes to infrastructure, Canada is too big to think small.

Kilian Berz is a senior partner and managing director with the Boston Consulting Group and heads the Financial Institutions practice globally. He is also the chair of the Centre for Canada's Future. Jim Leech is the chancellor of Queen's University and also serves as special adviser to the Prime Minister on the Canada Infrastructure Bank and special adviser to the Ontario Minister of Finance to review the sustainability of the province's electricity sector pension. Previously, he served as the president and CEO of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. Vinay Shandal is a partner and managing director with the Boston Consulting Group, where he heads the Canadian Principal Investors and Private Equity practice.

The CanInfra Challenge is a six-month public contest developed by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to seek out innovative ideas for transformational infrastructure in Canada, in partnership with other private sector sponsors including Brookfield Asset Management. The Globe is the media sponsor. Throughout the contest period, The Globe and Mail and BCG will share a series of discussion pieces to advance the infrastructure conversation in Canada by talking with senior leaders in the infrastructure community and sharing insights from around the world. For more details on the initiative, please visit caninfra.ca.

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