Not Your Everyday Industrial Strategy

by

Bernard Courtois
President and CEO, ITAC

The formulation of a digital economy strategy for Canada is a task much larger than the creation of industrial policy. It is nothing less than the creation of foundation for the kind of nation we will build in the 21st century.

Digital tools and content are pervasive. The tremendous growth of texting, for example, illustrates this. Canadians send about 174 million text messages per day. And to give you a sense of how quickly these tools are being deployed in 2002, it took us a year to produce that volume. Not a bad growth curve for a communications innovation that is only about 10 years old. We’ve seen similar sharp adoption curves for other services and forget that it took the telephone and the automobile roughly 50 years to achieve the same market penetration as the Internet and cell phones did in ten.

These tools affect everything about the way we conduct our lives from the way we conduct business to the way we connect with our friends and family. For example, we are in the midst of a revolution in publishing with implications as historic and far reaching as the introduction of the Gutenberg press. (Chances are now better than fifty-fifty that you are reading this article online.) A growing cadre of children owe their existence to their parents’ use of online social connection sites. Our engagement with our governing institutions has been streamlined in ways that we’ve already begun to take for granted – can you remember when you waited eight weeks for a routine tax return cheque to arrive in the mail? Can you remember doing your return with a pencil? And digital tools are already having a huge impact on the quality of our healthcare as records, scans and tests can all be digitized and transmitted at the speed of light and, for patients in a critical care setting, that’s just about fast enough.

The process that Industry Minister Tony Clement (along with Heritage Minister James Moore and Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley) announced today calls for a broad public consultation on what a digital Canada should look like. It presents a superb opportunity for all of us to stop and measure the ways technology has changed our lives and to be thoughtful about the opportunities and challenges technology presents.

The challenges are significant. For example, there is a serious potential that these tools, designed to bring us together can actually forge deep divisions. With our strong national characteristic of inclusion, we surely cannot countenance a nation divided between those who have technology and those who have not. Our key task must be to extend the benefits of digital tools and networks to all.

Equally we must be mindful that the rapid pace of technology does not blur our attention to the important values that have shaped Canadian society – values like security and privacy.

The information and communications technology industry obviously welcomes the announcement of an imminent digital economy strategy for Canada. The opportunities to return Canada to a leadership position globally in the production and use of digital tools is exciting to us. And we believe that the task of encouraging Canadian business across all sectors to be more inventive in their use of technology is one we have postponed for too long. We are most anxious to get underway on that to help ensure Canada’s productivity and competitiveness.

But if this consultation process occurs exclusively between our industry and policy makers, it will be a hollow exercise. Canadians of all ages in all walks of life have a vital stake in defining how our nation will function, what opportunities it will create and what checks and balances it will put in place to guarantee a robust digital future. All Canadians should engage in this discussion.

This op-ed was published on May 12 in The Waterloo Region Record, The Guelph Mercury, and the Wire Report online.

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