Digital Canada 150 won’t get us to where we could be

On May 10, 2010, then-Industry Minister Tony Clement, at the Canada 3.0 Conference in Stratford, Ont., launched a public consultation to develop “an action plan for regaining Canada’s leadership as a digital economy.”

On May 10, 2010, then-Industry Minister Tony Clement, at the Canada 3.0 Conference in Stratford, Ont., launched a public consultation to develop “an action plan for regaining Canada’s leadership as a digital economy.”

Nearly four years later, on April 4, 2014, at an event in Waterloo, Ont., Industry Minister James Moore finally delivered with the government’s Digital Canada 150 report.

Sadly, the wait wasn’t worth it. The report is devoid of big ideas and largely ignores the next big wave in the digital economy, what Cisco calls the Internet of Everything.

Despite this, in its introduction Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls Digital Canada 150 “a bold plan to guide Canada’s digital future.”

For his part, Moore boasts that Canada “has the opportunity to become a leader in this new age.”

But the next wave of the Internet revolution will be unlike anything we have experienced so far, though you wouldn’t know it from reading this document.

Canada has some extraordinarily creative and entrepreneurial players in the Internet economy, is embracing the smart city movement and has some world-class universities engaged in the Internet world, while Canadians themselves are addicted members of the digital world.

Cisco, IBM, Google and Microsoft, top global players, all have Canadian operations, recognizing Canada’s potential and tapping into Canadian talent and market opportunities.

However, this is not enough and Digital Canada 150 won’t get us to where we could be. Canada does not rank well in international benchmarking. For example, the World Economic Forum’s recent Global Information Technology Report 2014 ranks Canada 17th in the world in its network readiness index, which is focussed on each country’s ability to participate in the next-generation Internet, the world of Big Data.

The index has four sub-indexes: The environment sub-index, which reviews the political and regulatory environment and the business and innovation environment; the readiness sub-index, which considers infrastructure and digital content, affordability and skills; the usage sub-index, which covers individual, business and government usage; and the impact sub-index, which looks at economic and social impacts. Canada ranks 10th on the environment sub-index, 13th on the readiness sub-index, 26th on the usage sub-index, and 17th on the impact sub-index.

We are a long way from being a global leader in the digital economy.

In an earlier study this year — Greasing the Wheels of the Internet Economy — the Boston Consulting Group ranked Canada 10th in its e-Friction Index.

The index measured 55 indicators that inhibited Internet use and participation in the national and international Internet economy.

These were divided among four components: Infrastructure, which measured the access, bandwidth, speed, architecture and price of the Internet in each country; industry, which included the quality of infrastructure, ICT skills, venture capital, intellectual property law and company-level technology absorption; individual, which looked at the quality of education and ICT skills, use of the Internet for banking, cyber security and trust in privacy; and information, which included use of social networks, commitment to open data and freedom on the net.

Canada ranked 16th on infrastructure, 14th on industry and fifth on the individual and information components, indicating that Canadians as Internet users were well ahead of infrastructure and industry.

Canadians were first in the use of social media and first in personal banking on the Internet.

But Canada ranked 20th in fixed broadband pricing and 22nd in quality of communications networks, while industry ranked 24th in capacity for innovation and 34th in company-level technology absorption.

The coming Internet of Everything is a world in which billions of devices, such as sensors, are connected to billions of objects, from driverless cars, medical devices and refrigerators to aircraft engines, buildings, transit systems agriculture and the environment.

Cisco is projecting some 50 billion smart objects by 2020 generating vast amounts of data over the Internet.

This data is so vast that powerful computing systems will be needed to organize it into useful information that can guide decision-making in a way that has never been possible in the past.

Cisco estimates that the potential payoff in improved productivity and competitiveness could be worth $400 billion for the private sector in Canada and $95 billion for our public sector over the next decade.

There are many reasons to be optimistic about Canada’s digital future.

But this will only be realized if Canada adopts a much bolder and proactive digital strategy than is provided in a disappointing Digital Canada 150 report.

Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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