The Digital Future is Already With Us

By: Eric Neudorf | @EricNeudorf

Very last minute but is anyone here free tmr around 5pm to meet with Minister Bains?

That was Cathy Chen in the Global Shapers group chat on WhatsApp; she had met the Honourable Minister Navdeep Bains in January at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, which is the same organization that founded our group, the Global Shapers Community. We’re a global network of young professionals from various backgrounds, with hubs across 156 countries and 395 communities. Our hub is here in Ottawa.

Less than 24 hours after Cathy’s WhatsApp message, we were escorted into West Block on Parliament Hill, and seated in the boardroom next to the Prime Minister’s office, making our introductions to the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED).

Most of us entering the boardroom had met an hour earlier to discuss the government’s new Digital Charter. It’s an ambitious document with aspirational statements like “All Canadians will have equal opportunity to participate in the digital world,” and “Canadians will have clear and manageable access to their personal data,” “Trust in a digital world.”

But during our pre-meeting conversation, we talked less about trust and more about our anxieties: fear that rural and northern communities like my hometown in Saskatchewan could be left behind in the digital era, fear of having to keep learning how to use a new computer program every two months, fear that big companies would manipulate our decision-making with our own personal data.

After the minister opened the meeting with introductions, everybody had a chance to share their perspective on the charter. I was still settling in when I was invited to speak up. I was cleaning my glasses with the back of my tie. I pretended not to be caught off guard and shared about how challenging it had been for me to figure out a career for myself in a digital world after coming from a community where literally everyone is a farmer or a construction worker. Some shared similar concerns. Other Shapers talked about what they were doing with data and digital technology to make their communities better.

It was a pretty surreal experience to share my thoughts directly with a minister. For context, I message my dad every time I bump into a politician. Some examples: June 12, 17:07: “Spotted Bernier twice this week.” May 1, 07:11: “Just went through a revolving door at the same time as Lisa Raitt.” Apr 5, 09:54: “I was heading out just now, and on one side was Pierre Polievre, and on the other was a staffer, holding the door, so I had to walk between them. Just another day in Ottawa.” I’d have to call Dad about this one instead of texting.

The minister responded to each of our comments in turn, and as he did, his optimism about the digital future became abundantly clear. The conversation immediately shifted away from the challenges brought by new technology to the opportunities. He pointed out that even traditional industries are becoming digital. The farmers in the town where I grew up will soon be using satellite data to monitor their crops, and data will be used to identify new opportunities in the resource industry, spurring more construction. Point number seven in the charter explains, “The Government of Canada will ensure the ethical use of data to create value, promote openness and improve the lives of people: data for good.” The minister suggested that implementing the charter will be about finding ways to empower Canadians to use their new digital tools to grow the economy, strengthen democracy, and make the world better.

Reflecting his optimism, the minister’s Digital Charter is a vision of what the digital future is supposed to look like. Broadly speaking, the Charter presents a vision that the next government, whatever colour, will try to work toward. That government will try to overcome our pervasive fears about technological change while winning our trust in its plan to create a digital future that includes jobs, growth, security, and freedom for everybody. It will need to resolve big policy questions about personal privacy, data sovereignty, and global competition in a digital world — points that other Shapers raised with the minister too. Cathy even suggested that there might be opportunities for the government to work together with young people to achieve these goals.

After a group photo, we left the meeting and went back into the real world — a world where digital technology is already part of everything we do. “When do I ever get to do something like this?!” I tweeted, with a picture I took in the newly renovated parliament buildings. We walked together to a patio for a quick debrief, and a few of us chatted about a work project that uses data analytics to inform climate policy. The conversation eventually moved on to a discussion of someone’s wedding plans, and one of us came up with the bright idea of creating a digital platform that would allow couples to procure their old, borrowed, and blue from socially responsible companies. A few of us connected directly with the minister on social media.

Our conversation brought home the fact that the challenges and opportunities brought by the digital future are already with us. And as much as our fears give us pause, so does the potential to use “data for good.”

Do you have an idea to use data for good? Get in touch with the Global Shapers Ottawa Hub at globalshapersottawa@gmail.com |@OttawaShapers

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Ottawa Hub of the @GlobalShapers Community — an initiative of @WEF. Bringing together Ottawa’s best and brightest young leaders http://bit.ly/2lTGvg0

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Ottawa Global Shapers

Ottawa Global Shapers

Ottawa Hub of the @GlobalShapers Community — an initiative of @WEF. Bringing together Ottawa’s best and brightest young leaders http://bit.ly/2lTGvg0

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