The combination of the current global pandemic and the long-running challenge of mitigating the environmental and economic effects of global climate change are rapidly altering the context of, and challenges for, Canadian science, technology, and innovation policies. The economic aftershocks of the pandemic are occurring at the same time that two other longer-term trends are impacting the economy: the rapid diffusion of digital technology throughout every sector of the economy and the transition to a post-carbon economy. If anything, the pandemic has accelerated the adoption and diffusion of digital technologies in diverse fields such as online retail and commerce, remote working, and distance learning. Equally significant, the most effective measures for containing and controlling the spread of the pandemic have involved the application of digital technologies to link diverse databases in different national jurisdictions to facilitate contact tracing and reduce the need to lock down major portions of the economy.
These trends will persist and most likely accelerate as we gradually move to reopen the economy after COVID-19. The first trend involves the growing digitization of all aspects of the economy, placing greater reliance on cloud computing, mobile telephony, data analytics and artificial intelligence. For the past two decades, the pace of innovation has been accelerating, dramatically compressing the time it takes to disrupt established industries and bring new products and processes to market. The impact of exponential growth has been accentuated by the shift to virtual work and learning during the pandemic. The pandemic has accelerated a new wave of digitization across virtually every aspect of our lives. These changes will persist into the recovery.
The second trend is the accelerating shift away from carbon-based forms of energy to renewable forms, including wind, solar, battery electric, fuel cells and hydro power. This shift has been occurring for the past decade, with the cost of renewable energy and energy storage falling steadily and rapidly approaching the cross-over point with natural gas. In many jurisdictions, wind and solar energy is already cheaper than coal power. The trend away from carbon-based energy sources has been underlined by the steady stream of announcements from leading investment firms and sovereign wealth funds of their divestment from conventional fossil energy producers. Recent reports underline the vulnerability of existing oil and gas reserves, much of which may well end up as stranded assets. While some demand will return with a restoration of economic activity, the next normal of remote working and distance learning may well persist.
Going forward, innovation policy must be aligned across all sectors of the economy to stimulate the diffusion and adoption of digital technologies, as well as their application in support of public health measures to mitigate the spread of this pandemic, as well as future ones, and to promote the transition of all economic sectors and our energy systems to sustainable sources of energy. Recognition is growing that it no longer suffices to focus innovation policies on great new breakthroughs in ICT, pharmaceuticals or clean technologies that drove the wave of innovation over the last 50 years. The combined impact of the global pandemic with the climate crisis raises more fundamental questions of how new forms of technology and innovation interact with nature and the environment and the extent to which they can improve our prospects for sustainability and our chances of survival, or jeopardize them. In effect, this means that climate change, environmental sustainability, and public health concerns are now the critical lens filter through which all potential innovations must be assessed and, consequently, both the goals and impact of innovation policy as well. Rather than just viewing ‘cleantech’ as one more subfield of innovation policy, environmental sustainability and public health have become the determining criteria by which we must judge the viability of all new innovations. This creates the imperative to fundamentally reorient our innovation policies to pursue this objective more effectively.
Recent policy debates around decarbonization have tended to focus on the need to reduce the consumption of greenhouse gases in specific economic sectors, particularly transportation and heating. However, new policy thinking suggests that an effective climate change strategy must focus on shifting our reliance from carbon-based to alternative forms of energy, such as wind, solar and hydrogen, across every sector of the economy. This will necessitate both the development and application of new technologies that rely on these alternative energy sources, as well as the creation of the energy infrastructure needed to integrate the alternative sources into the grid. Digital technology can also play a critical role in optimizing the efficiency with which the alternative forms of energy are moved across the grid, as well as the efficiency with which they are used in different sectors of the economy.
The threats and opportunities created by these trends require a whole of government policy response. In addition to the growing clean energy sectors of the economy and the further expansion of the digital revolution underway for the past two decades, we need enhanced policies to support: the growth of domestic firms in new sectors of the economy linked to the development of transformation of existing industrial processes (cleantech); greater provision of renewable sources of energy, including, wind, solar and hydrogen; the rethinking and redesign of digitally integrated and enabled urban mobility systems, including public transit; more attention focused on our public health system, through the effective use of digital technologies to track diseases, the application of new computing techniques to accelerate the discovery and development of new vaccines and antiviral drugs and the use of these technologies to support and protect front line workers in the health sector and other parts of the service economy. The challenge is massive but many of the solutions are readily available in the form of existing technologies and the firms to develop them. What is missing is a national strategy to accelerate their deployment throughout the economy.