Innovations
June 17, 2013

Canadian pioneers in the Digital Age

We are only at the first phase of the Digital Age and our efforts require concerted action to develop the know-how to take advantage of the possibilities of this paradigm-shifting era.

More than half a century ago, Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan predicted what is only now becoming clear – that new media technologies will enable the most significant transformations since those unleashed by the printing press in the 15th century. Far more than a new Industrial Revolution, the Digital Age represents profound changes in economic, social and cultural formations that have only just begun in Canada and around the world.

At the recent Council on Foreign Relations’ annual conference in New York City, the CEO of IBM, Virginia Rometty, told her fellow business leaders that “data is the new natural resource.” These words recognize the profound ways in which information and communications technologies (ICTs) are enabling paradigm-shifting changes.

But as Innis and McLuhan predicted, data is much more than a natural resource such as oil and gas. Digital does not simply add to, or replace, analog technologies. Rather, new media enables incremental and disruptive innovation throughout society.

We are now realizing that a networked world, bursting with digital content, reflects new business models and business entities in all economic sectors. In the same way, governments are re-thinking distinctions between private and public and are re-defining their own roles and responsibilities. Most important, the borders separating business, home and communities are blurring as digital technologies allow people to re-connect the aspects of their lives that have been fragmented during the industrial era into roles as employees, family members and citizens.

Last year, the ICT sector contributed $62.3 billion to Canada’s GDP, which accounts for more than five percent of the country’s total economic output. Just a decade ago, that figure was $44.9 billion. And currently, more than a million Canadians are employed in the ICT sector, both in developing new digital technologies and services and in supporting ICT companies. These figures are impressive but they underestimate the full dimensions of the transformations now underway. Indeed, such calculations – many of which still use industrial-era categories – are only the beginning of a shift in which data users are becoming key.

One of the Council members of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Tom Jenkins, executive chairman and chief strategy officer at OpenText, Canada’s largest software company, uses a medieval-era metaphor that Innis and McLuhan would have appreciated. “The internet economy has thus far belonged to the toolmakers, some of them Canadian, who built the infrastructure that made the digital age possible,” he says. “But the torch is being passed. The future now belongs, at least equally, to the tool users, the creative people, content providers and service deliverers, who have learned how to take the images, sounds, ideas and concepts and share them digitally.”

In other words, ICTs are enabling individuals, companies, governments, educational institutions and organizations of all types to innovate their operations thanks to the ability to communicate and exploit enormous flows of data. In its 2011 report on big data, the McKinsey Global Institute pointed out that, “like other essential factors of production, such as hard assets and human capital, it is increasingly the case that much of modern economic activity, innovation and growth simply couldn’t take place without data.”

One major challenge is that the policies and practices developed for analog societies remain dominant even though they are often not appropriate for the digital age. The private sector, government and the research community are all facing the same urgent challenge and must act in complementary and coherent ways in keeping with the connectedness and interrelatedness of the Digital Age.

For our part, as the heads of two of Canada’s federal research agencies, we have been working actively to promote a common understanding across the research landscape of the overall need to update our analog policies and practices and to develop an action plan both for specific and collaborative effort.

For example, the Digging into Data Challenge, supported by SSHRC, the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) as well as research agencies in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, funds international research collaboration to explore how “computationally intensive research methods” can improve our understanding of human thought and behaviour.

In a similar way, the Discovery Frontiers program, supported by NSERC, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Genome Canada and the CFI, will provide up to $1.5 million per year for research plus $2.5 million for infrastructure for projects that help researchers “efficiently analyze vast quantities of genomic information and integrate it with other data sets.”

The government of Canada’s Open Data program is making federal data accessible in a “useful format to enable citizens, the private sector and non-government organizations to leverage it in innovative and value-added ways.” This program complements Canada’s expanding network of Research Data Centres, which are supported by CFI and SSHRC as well as partners in every province.

Researchers from the digital humanities to bioinformatics are using big data to address the major questions of our time – questions related to climate change, energy, disease, poverty, productivity and justice. The good news is that, flowing from the work of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, Canadians have a strong tradition of helping lead the way.

Chad Gaffield is the president and CEO of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Gilles G. Patry is the president and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

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