From a Digital Economy to a Digital Society: A Response to the Canadian Consultation

Posted on June 28, 2010

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I started in the ICT game around 30 years ago (of course it wasn’t called that back then) by working as a 3 day a week consultant for Bell Canada.  My job there was to do a review of Bell Canada’s proposed new developments from the perspective of their likely or possible social impact.  Basic to the activity was the statistic provided by the CRTC (the Canadian telecoms regulator) that 92% of the Canadian population had direct in home POTS (plain old telephone service).  This figure was widely known and discussed as a sign of Canada’s significant development in the telecommunications sphere and not incidentally as a consequence of being a cold country occupying a lot of territory.

My job though, wasn’t to boast to the world about this statistic, rather at the direction of the company in turn responding to pressure from the regulator who in turn was reflecting Canadian government policy, my job for Bell Canada was to figure out how various upcoming programs might contribute to a reduction in that residual 8% of the population.  It was that 8% who didn’t have POTS whether because of the cost, the lack of accessibility because of physical disability, or possibly because of the lack of service in various of Canada’s remote and rural areas, which was of significant regulatory, policy and thus programme concern up and down the line.

In an attempt to reduce that 8% and to ensure that the figure didn’t, Bell Canada spent a considerable amount of resources and management attention on developing low cost basic telephone service (limited calling and restricted long distance). Among other activities Bell interacted on a fairly regular basis with various civil society groupings around these programmes and reported regularly on the progress of the programmes as part of its regular reporting to the CRTC as a regulated monopoly.

In addition, and most certainly not incidentally a very considerable portion of the Bell Family’s  attention (at the time including Northern Telecom (later Nortel), and Bell Northern Research,( the primary telecom research facility in the country) focused on means for providing telecom service into very remote and rural regions of the country via various (then exotic) platforms such as satellites, micro-wave and radio.  As well, the primary government owned research facility in the area, the Communications Research Centre also had major programs concerning remote and rural communications (presumably linked to military and defense requirements but with significant civilian applications as well).

The Connecting Canadians Agenda of the  late ‘90’s seemed to update this overall issue into the Internet age by looking to ensure that “all Canadians can benefit from this new digital environment” (John Manley, then Minister of Industry), but by placing the issue of connectivity clearly in the context of economic benefits.

The current equivalent initiative, the Digital Economy Consultation further narrows the issue by only referring to Digital Skills and overall with a failure to deal with the broader and societal issues and opportunities of digital connectivity and use. The themes presented for discussion are: Key themes being considered in the consultations are: Capacity to Innovate Using Digital Technologies; Building a World-Class Digital Infrastructure; Growing the Information and Communications Technology Industry; Digital Media: Creating Canada’s Digital Content Advantage; and Building Digital Skills for Tomorrow.

The most recent estimate was that some 75% (2009) of Canadians were able to access Broadband in their homes.  If one accepts as most now do,  that Broadband is the communications platform of the digital era then this figure of 75% -80% should be compared to the 92% penetration rate which was seen as unacceptably low some 30 years earlier by our policy and regulatory structures.

Interestingly a recent report by the a Committee of Canada’s Senate implicitly criticized the “consultation” and the narrowness of its mandate and recommended a policy to address the Canadian Digital Divide (to define “universal” as in “universal service” as 100% of Canadians) as well as suggesting a national Digital Strategy of which this would be significant component.

While the issue of “Digital Skills” is not unimportant, precisely what Digital Skills might be are left extremely vague with a reference to an equally vague OECD document.  As well, the issue of how or whether “Digital Skills” are in fact, the way for an advanced economy to proceed given the extremely rapid pace of change and volatility in the technology landscape where the more specific the skills the more likely that they are to become obsolete with the next generation of technology (typically 6-18 months in many spheres of the digital economy). In fact, most digital employers seem to prefer to train their own employees on their own systems which gives them an opportunity to introduce employees into local corporate cultures and proprietary systems and local corporate knowledge and practices.

The level of digital skills for the small business sector which seems to be something of a priority in this Consultation is equally murky and likely as well to not be the driver of small business development argued for in the paper in the absence of a broader base of digital literacy in the overall economy and society (and educational system) This is particularly the case for mobile communications which is driving a large proportion of the digital innovation in most parts of the world outside of North America.

Of course, what is missing from the consultation is the broader issue of building a digitally inclusive society in Canada (referred to in the Senate report) as for example can be found in the policy orientation in Hong Kong with its objective of eliminating through government funded programs the last 20% (quintile) of those currently not digitally enabled.

The recognition that a digitally enabled and effective economy is founded on a digitally enabled and effective society seems somewhere to have been lost.  Lost as well seem to be the recognition that the greatest skill in a digital economy as in any other economy or in society overall is the capacity to learn and that learning how to learn, a function of a broader and more humanistic education rather than a “skills oriented” one, is probably a more important and useful preparation for a digital future overall. Equally lost is an understanding that economic innovation is a subset of broader social innovation which in turn comes from a critical yet practical immersion in prevailing cultures and practices.

The response then from a Community Informatics perspective to the questions posed by the Digital Economy Consultation would be as follows:

Capacity to Innovate Using Digital Technologies

The capacity to innovate is a “social” capacity, that is the foundation for innovation comes from a widely dispersed knowledge and experience base coming to grips with important issues including (and particularly in the Canadian context) those having to do with the capacity to live together and be productive in a very diverse and scattered population in an environmentally and climaticly sensitive resource intensive economy.  The more widely dispersed the access to, knowledge of, and capacity to use digital technology the greater our capacity as a country to innovate and respond to competitive and other global and local challenges.

Recommendation: That the Government of Canada undertake programs to create the capacity for effective use of broadband based digital technology for the “last quintile” of the Canadian population.

Building a World-Class Digital Infrastructure

In support of the above recommendation a world-class digital infrastructure would need to be put into place.  This challenge here is to ensure access to and effective use of the infrastructure by the “last quintile” (20%).  Since this “last quintile” remains unconnected largely because this represents the least economically beneficial group in the society from a private sector perspective the requirement here will need to be for a government initiative and funding to bridge the “last quintile” divide.

Recommendation: That the Federal Government of Canada commit to ensuring through private and public sector partnerships and direct funding and ownership if necessary, that the advantages of participation in a Digital Society and Economy be extended to the “last quintile”.

Growing the Information and Communications Technology Industry

The objective of “growing the ICT” industry is in fact a goal to increase the requirements for ICT applications, systems and services in the Canadian economy.  Since much of the current requirement is already satisfied, growth in the demand and the industry to respond will to a considerable degree come from the “last quintile” of non-users who are currently not being served.

Recommendation: That the Federal Government in its funding and overall programming strategy recognize the significance of the “last quintile” for the Canadian ICT industry and put resources and programme supports in place to ensure resources for demand from and appropriate supply to the “last quintile” sector of the overall market for ICT goods and services.

Digital Media: Creating Canada’s Digital Content Advantage

Canada’s greatest strength as an originator and creator of digital (and other) content is its diversity and history in responding to a range of physical, climatic and social challenges.  This knowledge, talent and capacity is found in Canada’s communities, small and large; digital and ethnic; linguistic and experimental; urban, rural and remote. A policy of ensuring technology and financial support to the range of communities within Canada is the surest method of enabling a “content advantage” for our digital productions.

Recommendation: That the Federal Government provide a range of technology and other programmatic supports for the range of communities within Canada and particularly to facilitate the expression of the range of interests and activities within these communities in both digital and non-digital form.

Building Digital Skills for Tomorrow.

Whether “Digital Skills” are in fact, the way for an advanced economy to proceed given the extremely rapid pace of change and volatility in the technology landscape, where the more specific the skills the more likely that they are to become obsolete, is a significant open question. In fact, most digital employers prefer to train their own employees on their own systems which gives them an opportunity to introduce employees into local corporate cultures and proprietary systems and local corporate knowledge and practices.

Recommendation: That the Government of Canada focus on the development of a broad base of digital literacy in the overall economy and society (and educational system) as the basis for “building digital skills for tomorrow” and that there is an associated commitment to ensure the broadest base of social inclusion with respect to this educational priority and particularly focusing on the requirements of the inclusion of the “last quintile”.