Canada in 2020 (Technology): Why Canada needs to have its own tech czar

A high-level government leader could spearhead tech strategies to make Canada more competitive.

The U.S. has a chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra. Australia has Stephen Conroy, minister for broadband, communications and the digital economy. The U.K. has financial secretary Stephen Timms, responsible for the Digital Britain project. Each country also has a detailed plan laying out how the country will spur economic development through technology. And Canada? Where is our tech czar?

The closest this country has to a leader of national tech strategy is Tony Clement, minister for Industry Canada. He’s quietly working on a national agenda for the digital economy — an encouraging development after years of the federal government neglecting the potential for tech-fuelled growth. But if Canada is going to get serious about developing a comprehensive, long-term vision for how the country will adapt to and compete in a world powered by binary bits, it needs to appoint a tech czar who can create and implement the strategy.

Clement may unveil the government’s digital plan as early as this fall. It can’t come soon enough. For years, despite the country’s slow slide in international rankings and the urging of domestic task forces and expert panels, Canada has lacked both specific initiatives and larger strategies. Reports are written. Politicians come and go.

Observers are hoping for an ambitious plan that goes beyond short-term economic stimulus or even a strategy for the $60-billion high-tech industry, which accounts for 4.7% of GDP. The challenge is broader than that. Digital technologies are fuelling transformations around the globe, fundamentally changing how we communicate, learn, create, work, conduct business, are governed, see ourselves in the world. How successfully Canada adapts to this new era, how it positions itself to seize the opportunities that such change brings, and uses it to drive its own economic renewal, will go a long way to determine its prosperity a decade from now and beyond.

If the Conservatives are in fact serious about the digital economy, the agenda can’t be a loose collection of initiatives left to individual departments and the whims of election promises — it demands, as Clement as said, a ?whole-of-government? approach. To help guide it forward, however, there needs to be some kind of established bureaucracy, oversight by external advisers and, most importantly, an accountable government minister who can work across federal ministries and with the provinces. That goes beyond Industry Canada’s domain, as we need to beef up our tech strategies in education, health care and other areas.

Perhaps it will, ultimately, be Tony Clement who gets tapped, or maybe Heritage Minister James Moore, a 33-year-old devotee of smartphones and Twitter. The two have already formed a kind of digital Dynamic Duo on some of the issues, like copyright reform, that will form the basis of an updated regulatory regime and a key part of any digital agenda. But grappling with the inherent complexity that comes with rapidly changing technologies and their effects on business and society demands someone be paying close attention.

There is a wide consensus that Canada is falling behind. Although the country once prided itself on being one of the most advanced nations, it is now just a middling performer by almost all measures of technological global competitiveness. On 10 broad measures the Organization for Economic Development uses — including R&D, investment in information and communication technologies (ICT), high-tech skills and even general access to computers, the Internet and elephones — Canada is consistently out of the Top 10. Investment in ICT is of specific concern as a source of the country’s productivity gap with the United States, which buys 77% more technology than Canadian businesses. But in general, technology helps fuel growth, leads to higher incomes and develops a smart, better-informed citizenry.

The trick is figuring out how to do it. The potential components of Clement’s plan were on display in June at the invitation-only Forum on the Digital Economy. Clement hosted the daylong event in Ottawa, with Moore tweeting in attendance, to solicit ideas from 180 technology, communications and media industry players and academics. Presentations were structured around issues of broadband infrastructure and access, how to promote business innovation through the use of technology, and building a safer online marketplace. Within those broad categories, though, discussion ranged all over the map: high-tech skills shortages, the disappearance of early-stage financing of companies, the rollout of electronic health-care records, R&D tax credits, how laws and regulations need to change — Clement acknowledged it was a lot to take in.

Just how well Clement and Moore do framing Canada’s approach to the digital economy will get an early test with the updating of Canada’s copyright laws. The two ministers held a series of roundtable and town hall forums across the country this past summer, in part to make amends for the contentious Bill C-61. Although that copyright legislation — the work of Clement’s predecessor, Jim Prentice — died on the order paper a year ago in advance of the election, C-61 was widely criticized for being drafted with almost no public or industry input and for just parroting the restrictive U.S. digital media laws, circa 1998. Clement and Moore’s apparent willingness to revisit the issue has raised hopes in some quarters that they are open to a deeper understanding of copyright beyond the old trope about file sharing threatening traditional media industries. They will be similarly pressed to take a position on the openness of the Internet, as the CRTC will rule this fall on Rogers’ and Bell Canada’s so-called throttling of broadband networks.

With the individual issues multiplying, it makes it all the more evident that Canada is not well-prepared to compete in the digital world. It must stake its territory. A good first step: putting someone in charge.