Today’s Digital Economy conference has surfaced the hunger for a serious effort at moving Canada back into a leadership position in the global digital economy. As the day has unfolded, many people have noted that we need to meet that hunger with a concrete action plan. Here’s my first crack at a set of recommendations, guided by our experience in the emergent field of social media, for both action and further dialogue.

Recommendations for future action:

  1. Marry hardware and software. One of Canada’s great success stories, RIM (of Blackberry fame) is here today. Another great success — Flickr — is absent. But Flickr shows what Canadians can do when they take the infrastructure of the web (mobile, wireles or wired) and marry it with our traditional strengths in community and content creation. Twinning hardware innovators with software innovators would be a great way to inspire software innovators to develop tools and business models that make the most of next-generation hardware, and vice versa.
  2. Use Crown Corps as poster children. The Canadian government owns a number of corporations that could be used as models for business innovation. While no one could argue that Canada Post, Via Rail or the Atomic Energy Corporation are typical businesses, they face many of the same challenges as the rest of us. Challenging these companies to push the edge of the envelope in the effective and innovative use of ICTs — and to transparently share their experience — would make our investment in those companies do double duty.
  3. Focus our attention. One commenter noted that policy efforts should focus on areas with greatest potential policy leverage. I’d note that many traditional areas of effective government intervention — notably, content and culture — are now subject to massive policy circumvention. While we can’t abandon the culture sector, protecting conventional content production is a tough nut to crack. Tackling IT access and infrastructure – while expensive — is at least amenable to effective government action.
  4. Expand our definition of innovation. The feds’ SRED program came up in the course of today’s discussion; it’s a great example of how our model (and support for) innovation are based on a relatively orthodox interpretation of tech innovation. Many of the most crucial tech investments involve trying new business models or forms of social interaction, rather than new technologies per se. Providing incentives for businesses to try crowdsourcing, online collaboration and customer engagement will help offset the risk aversion of organizations facing a new set of communications challenges and opportunities.
  5. Tie tech innovation to environmental goals. Online collaboration and telework can help address two of our most pressing economic challenges: the coming skills shortage, and climate change. Incentivizing alternative work arrangements — and supporting the development of technologies that make them possible — will help reduce the carbon footprint of business while creating jobs that appeal to a new generation of workers.

Recommendations for future policy discussions:

  1. Balance the question of what government needs to do with a discussion of where businesses can effect change. Many of the issues discussed today are more readily (or at least more likely to be) addressed by IT-savvy businesses taking the initiative to model best practices. Businesses that are innovating — for example with the use of online collaboration, the investment in IT infrastructure, or the embrace of telework — need to share their experiences (positive and negative) so that others can learn.
  2. Run a DigitalEconomyCamp. Today’s conference included 150 business leaders; 8 hours of their knowledge, brain power and resources would go a long way if invested in a policy sprint and action plan rather than passive listening.
  3. Get digital to do digital. We had a thriving backchannel on Twitter; audience members who participated online were able to engage conversationally as well as benefit from the live presentations. Incorporating online conversation and wiki-based collaboration would facilitate real-time outcomes and broader engagement.
  4. Reach outside the sector. The background paper for today’s workshop wisely noted that ICT is a driver of innovation for all Canadian business, not just tech companies. Including non-IT companies — particularly those who make innovative use of ICTs, including content producers — would be crucial to uncovering the key success factors for effective IT use.
  5. Reach outside the ministry. When I worked with many Canadian government ministries on the Governance Digital Economy program, there was much hang-wringing over government silos. Ten years later, it’s notable that Industry Canada is still tackling the digital economy (at least in this context) on its own; digital economy issues are just as salient to Environment, Revenue and Heritage (to name just three); it would be great to hear what those departments are doing in this space.

What are your thoughts on today’s conversation? Leave them in text below, or dive into a wiki version of the Industry Canada background paper.