Intelligent adoption of digital technologies will play a key role in addressing some current economic, social and environmental challenges. For example, ICT industry studies have estimated that the application of ICTs to create smart electricity grids, buildings, logistics and production processes could result in a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

These are the two most crucial sentences in the federal government’s digital economy consultation paper, Improving Canada’s Digital Advantage: Strategies for Sustainable Prosperity. I participated in a 2009 industry conference that was part of the consultation process, and documented some initial recommendations at that time. Now the government has put forward a paper that maps the landscape and raises questions around five aspects of government policy on the digital economy:

  1. Digitally-enabled business innovation
  2. Building digital infrastructure
  3. Supporting the information and communications infrastructure
  4. Digital content and culture
  5. Skills development for the digital economy

It’s a useful document, and even a bit surprising: the section on business innovation actually dares to ask whether lack of innovation is a peculiarly Canadian problem:

On average, Canadian firms consistently invest less in ICT than their competitors in the United States and other advanced economies…..Recent work done by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) suggests that Canada lacks a culture of innovation with respect to ICT adoption….The aforementioned reports and others also suggest that Canada’s underinvestment in digital technologies is part of a broader problem in innovation performance, which is largely due to a lack of business and managerial skills.

Despite asking that provocative question, it’s a report that mostly plays it safe, framing the problem of Canada’s digital economy as an exercise in GDP growth, and hedging as to whether the digital economy is primarily about the ICT sector or a description of the economy as a whole — an economy that is now defined by digital media.

The good news is that this is (at least in theory) the jumping-off point for discussion, and not the final result. Since the document talks a lot about how government should model tech innovation for the private sector, I’d have loved to see that discussion leverage social media by inviting contributions through blogs, social networks and other transparent, many-to-many channels. Instead it’s the usual government approach of “send us your views in our preferred form”, albeit with a nod to Ideastorm: you can submit ideas and vote them up or down. But I’m going to go ahead and share my thoughts via blog post, and hope others will do the same so that the consultation turns into an online conversation about the future of the Canadian economy.

Which brings me back to those two intriguing sentences: sentences that raise the question of how the transition to a digital economy can also be the transition to a sustainable, equitable and resilient economy. These are questions that the report doesn’t explore beyond the quotation above. It manages to avoid much mention of the biggest challenges that our economy faces in the coming decades: climate change, peak oil, a widening gap between rich and poor both nationally and globally, increasing market volatility, international conflict…..I could keep going but we’ll all get too depressed to think constructively about bandwidth and skills development.

But here’s the good news: we’re also facing a complete restructuring of our economy thanks to the digital revolution. I know that might sound like scary news rather than good news, but it’s the usual intersection of crisis and opportunity. The Digital Advantage paper speaks to that opportunity in economic terms — hey! we could get some more jobs! — but largely ignores the much larger stakes.
What’s at stake goes far beyond our GDP or unemployment rate, and goes to the heart of Canadians’ survival and our country’s role in the world. We have a very short window to untangle the social, environmental and market problems we now face. And since those problems are mostly intertwined with the industrial economy (just think about the environmental and social impact of factories, let alone all the related social and economic changes), the transition out of the industrial economy is our best shot at plotting a new course.

Plotting a new course is not about finding new mediocre jobs (data processing, call centers) to replace the old mediocre jobs (assembly lines, resource extraction), or even new industries to replace the old. It’s about rethinking the structure of a mass production, mass consumption, global economy — and seeing if we can regenerate in a way that is better for us and better for the planet.

I recognize that this government, and Industry Canada in particular, are less interested in the environmental and social stakes than in the implications for Canadian businesses. In fact, I share that passion for promoting the growth of our country’s digitally-enabled businesses, both in my role at the SIM Centre and as the owner of my own social media agency. But I believe in aligning the needs of business owners with the requirements for transition to an environmentally and socially sustainable economy. There’s no shortage of ideas about how to support the growth of a digital economy; all we have to do is pick those ideas that boost business and point our economy and society in the right direction.

Here are some examples:

  1. Reward Open: PhoneGap is a free, open source development platform for mobile phones that for-profit company Nitobi created out of the goodness of their hearts — and because it indirectly supports their business. But open source platforms like PhoneGap create spinoff benefits for both the for-profit and social economies; I spent last weekend at a mobile development camp in the US where PhoneGap was used to build a public journalism tool. Developing R&D incentives that encourage open source development can help us succeed in the fast-growing open source software sector, while creating valuable tools that can be economically used by the non-profit (as well as for-profit) sectors.
  2. Etsy-ize: Etsy is a US-based site that houses an enormous range of sole proprietor shops, each selling only handmade or vintage products. The small-scale production that these stores represent provides meaningful livelihoods (or income supplements) for producers all around the world, with a turnkey simplicity that makes the red tape of setting up a real-world storefront look like a bad joke. Online sales have given artisanal production a new lease on life; let’s support it with programs that give micro-producers some of the resources that are now targeted to larger companies.
  3. #CanCon: The question of how to foster Canadian content in a global media culture is one of the central preoccupations of this paper, and of many creative companies. That challenge is even tougher online, where sites catering to niche markets (and make no mistake, a country of 30 million people is a niche market) have a hard time competing for search visibility with sites that have global reach. Supporting Canadian content online means supporting it on sites that are beyond our borders as well as within it. Let’s see Canadian culture defined as a tag space (#CanCon, anyone?) that can be supported to go global but identify itself proudly to those who want to find a Canadian lens on the world of online video, text, music and image.
  4. Meaningful Mondays: OK, we could have Truthful Tuesdays. But whatever day we pick, let’s take a page from Google’s book and help companies allocate 20% of their employees’ time to projects that interest them, but aren’t in their job description. It’s a great way for companies to foster innovation (Gmail, Google News and Adsense all started as independent projects) and it’s also a way to foster continuous re-skilling, since people learn more readily when they are pursuing projects they are passionate about.
  5. NPTech Sector: No input into a government policy consultation would be complete without the paragraph saying, “give all the money to people just like me!” Self-interest aside, there is a great case to make for supporting the nonprofit tech (nptech) sector in Canada. My friends and colleagues at companies like Communicopia, Agentic and Wild Apricot are all proof that tech companies can achieve global recognition and financial rewards by focusing on work that has a social or environmental benefit. Investing in Canada’s NTAPS (nonprofit technology assistance providers) is a way of simultaneously building both our private and nonprofit sectors.

These are just a few examples of policy approaches that could benefit Canadian businesses and workers this year, while laying the groundwork for a different kind of economy in years to come. The “digital economy” shouldn’t be defined as an economy that’s been digitized, any more than it should be defined as the part of the economy that makes digital products and services. The dawn of the digital economy should be endowed with the same breadth of social, environmental and economic significance that we associate with the advent of the industrial economy. Only this time, let’s make it turn out better.