Canadians are not getting a digital economy strategy

Minister indicates hands-off approach while other countries set goals and dates

By Peter Wolchak
November 19, 2012

“We want to be a developed nation by 2020,” Datuk Seri Panglima Dr. Maximus Johnity Ongkili, the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation of Malaysia, told the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT) in Montreal in October. Malaysia is relying on information and communication technology (ICT) to power this transformation. It plans to increase the amount of GDP generated from ICT to 17 per cent from the current 9.8 per cent, double digital exports, generate an additional RM7,000 per year from digital industries for 350,000 citizens, and break the top 10 listing in the IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook. These goals are detailed in its National Transformation Agenda plan.

Nigeria, too, has specific goals. It is working to become a top 20 economy by 2020, and Omobola Johnson, Nigeria’s Minister of Communication Technology, said “ICT will be a primary driver of that aspiration.” In the short term, it is distributing 10 million phones to farmers to improve access to fertilizer subsidies, and giving phones to pregnant women to help them get medical care. The country's national ICT policy is here.

The WCIT was an inspiring conference full of great ideas and energized international representatives. Politicians, CEOs, entrepreneurs and students from more than 80 countries brought their enthusiasm and determination to the conference.

The Canadian politicians who strode the WCIT’s stage were not as forward-thinking. Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, and for the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario, reviewed the government’s past actions, including a $400-million investment in venture capital activities, the doubling of funding for the Industrial Research Assistance Program and the work of the Digital Technology Adoption Pilot Program. Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board and Minister for the FedNor Initiative, unveiled improvements to the government’s Open Data portal: better search capabilities, interactive tools and simplified licensing rules.

These are excellent initiatives that help many Canadians, but where is the vision for the future, a plan comparable to those of Malaysia and Nigeria? It was Tony Clement, after all, who, more than two years ago, asked Canadians for input to help his government craft a national ICT action plan.

At the conference, I realized that plan will never materialize. Minister Goodyear told the audience the government’s approach is that “the private sector must lead the way. The government is creating the right conditions for Canadian business to compete internationally, we are creating the right policies to help the ICT sector grow, and we are providing incentives for businesses to adopt and use technology.”

He should have added, for clarity, “We are not unveiling a digital-economy plan today, and you should not expect one soon.”

That’s a mistake. To those who suggest—as I believe our government is doing—that we are fine and don’t need a plan, I point out that Canada has dropped in every international study ranking competitiveness and ICT excellence. In other words, what we’re doing isn’t working. I also point out that the European Union not only created a detailed digital action plan, but that it also publishes ongoing progress reports broken down by region and task.

While it is possible, of course, that Malaysia and Nigeria will not reach their goals, that ICT’s shoulders are not quite so broad, the energy of these representatives was palpable. You cannot win a race if you never start for the finish line.

I ran into the Prime Minister of Malaysia on the show floor. He had endured a 30-hour flight to be at the WCIT. Stephen Harper, 40 minutes away, was not there. I fear that speaks to the relative importance ICT holds for these two leaders.

Peter Wolchak

Peter Wolchak, Editor

Also read:
Canada's digital economy strategy | Backbone magazine advisory board
Digital Economy Strategy Blog
Canada's Digital Economy Strategy: The E-commerce Targets Revealed

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