New opportunities needed
To create the good jobs that will sustain a vibrant middle class and promote upward mobility, we need to create and seize new opportunities. Growth and jobs come from new activities.
Fortunately, if we are smart about it, there is a big opportunity staring us in the face where Canada is well positioned to gain advantage and build future prosperity.
We know that we have to spend a great deal of money on infrastructure in the decade ahead. We know that we have to become much more environmentally sustainable and more energy efficient. And we know that the next information revolution — the Internet of Everything — will enable us to develop much smarter infrastructure and much improved environmental and energy management.
What we have to do, then, is to marry our infrastructure and environmental needs with the next-Internet opportunity.
If we think of this as an innovation strategy for next-generation infrastructure and the environment, then we can create new technologies, companies and good jobs. And by meeting the needs of Canadians and exporting the technologies that result, we can help meet the needs of other countries in a growing and more populated world where infrastructure, urbanization and consumption will meet head-on the challenges of environmental sustainability.
When we look at infrastructure spending, for example, rather than taking the traditional approach, which is to count the number of construction jobs created, we should focus on how we create new technologies, systems and software to improve the operation and efficiency of the infrastructure we are building — in water treatment plants, transit systems, highways, telecommunications and airports, for example — and in environmental and energy efficiency investments, how we are designing buildings, monitoring the state of the environment, managing energy use and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
This will mean that instead of simply pursuing the lowest-cost bid on infrastructure projects, we should measure bids as well on how they contribute to the development and use of new technologies or systems. But if we are going to succeed, we have to create the demand for new technologies, and that can be done, not only by insisting that new projects include the use of new technologies but also by introducing new standards and regulations, for example in building codes, and new taxes, such as a carbon tax to bring down greenhouse gas emissions.
For many young companies, contracts may be even more valuable than grants. And demonstration projects are a key way to advance technology.
All of these and other policies and programs will help create a market for new technologies as consumers, businesses and public authorities all seek new approaches, and this, in turn, will create incentives for researchers and entrepreneurs to develop new technologies, software and systems for a smarter world.
A recent report from the Council of Canadian Academies — Enabling Sustainability in an Interconnected World — attempts to engage this potential.
“The world is on the threshold of fundamental, transformative change — a powerful convergence of digital computing power and information technologies with physical infrastructures and institutions that deliver energy, water, food, transport and communications services,” the panel report, chaired by former Toronto mayor David Miller, says.
The report was undertaken in response to a request from Environment Canada to identify existing or potential opportunities to use information and communications technologies for a greener Canada.
The task force looked at six thematic areas that represented opportunity: environmental monitoring; smart interconnected electricity and water networks; smart interconnected buildings and neighbourhoods; smart interconnected mobility; smart interconnected production; and healthy people and healthy communities.
It also argued that Canada could become a location for green data centres as the world moves to cloud computing and energy-intensive data warehouses given our capacity for reliable electricity supply.
But the panel also found that “the vast potential of these technologies to drive sustainability is currently not being realized in Canada” for a variety of reasons, including costs, or fear of costs, of bringing on new technologies, inadequate broadband capacity, a lack of data access and interoperability, and a lack of the needed ICT skills.
This points to the need for leadership and commitment if we are to capitalize on a real and urgent opportunity for Canada. This what a credible digital strategy would mean but it’s missing from the government’s recent Digital Strategy. But there is an opportunity for private sector leadership to get the ball rolling. Where is the Information Technology Association of Canada when we need it?
Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.