Enhancing Canada’s Innovation Agenda

We agree with much of what’s said in Canada’s Innovation Agenda because it sets the right direction, tone and commits to investment in a digital world. The premise for needing an innovation agenda of this nature is sound. As stated: “our country is blessed with an abundance of natural resources. But we can no longer prosper only from the output that comes from our natural resources. We must also prosper from the energy and ingenuity that comes from our people. That’s how Canada’s economy will outperform the economies of the rest of the world.”

We concur because there is no doubt that digital capabilities are transforming industries and as noted in the Innovation Agenda, a 4th industrial revolution is underway.   Consequently, workers must have awareness, interest, aptitude, training and opportunity to work in such a world. What’s at stake for Canada, is its ability to compete globally.

But where the Innovation Agenda comes up a “bit” short (so to speak) is in reference to the importance of digital data.  The Agenda makes only basic references to data (e.g. big and open), without explaining the nature of data and its value in a digital world.

In a previous article, we proposed the idea that digital data should be framed as a resource, albeit an unnatural one.  Others have suggested that data can be considered the fourth factor of production, in addition to land labor and capital.  These ideas underscore the notion that data is an input that creates economic value (just like natural resources have done).  To be treated as a resource, however, digital data also requires adequate recognition, investment, and management.

The human skills necessary for exploiting digital data are quite varied.  For the purpose of this article, we loosely categorize them under data science, an interdisciplinary field intent on finding meaning and insight in data. The skills can pertain to data management, data analytics, information science, statistics, computer programming, data visualization and storytelling. While many tools and techniques are common across industries, data science also requires knowledge of the area to which it is applied. For example, data science is applicable to both medicine and agriculture, but at some point in the process, data analysis must take on the language and meaning that’s unique to those sectors.

Data Science is a great opportunity for helping Canada compete more effectively and for creating jobs for Canadians.   While Canada needs to attract skilled workers from abroad, it should also turn to slumping sectors that have professionals with such skills.  Oil and Gas is a good example, which has been in a downturn since 2014. Many have been out of work in fields such as geoscience (e.g. geologists, geophysicists, petrophysics), engineering (of all types), and business management (e.g. operations management, finance, accounting etc.).

Many oil and gas professionals have a natural aptitude for data science because they’ve come through rigorous programs that rely on data analysis, use of formulae, systematic thinking etc.  They are good candidates for pivoting to other sectors that require those kinds of skills.

In summary, Canada’s Innovation Agenda is a positive step forward in that it acknowledges the importance of the global, digital transformation underway and why Canada needs to adapt. But the Agenda should be enhanced to put a clearer focus on the role of digital data as a resource to create economic value. In particular, outlining the kind of skills within data science would articulate specific development needs of workers. And those needs would guide the right investments, so Canada may benefit from “from the energy and ingenuity that comes from our people.”

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