NRCan’s Digital Accelerator is benefiting Canadians by future-proofing the department’s work

Published On: July 2021Categories: 2021 Editorial Series, Editorials


Patti Ryan

an image of a southeast asian man sitting in front of the canadian flag

In 2019, the executive leadership team at Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) decided to establish a centre of excellence to help the department capitalize on breakthroughs from emerging technologies. Their brainchild, the NRCan Digital Accelerator, was founded so that science experts, policy leaders, and program administrators could collaborate with data scientists to advance science and policy integration in the department.

Today, the Digital Accelerator is boosting the department’s ability to conduct research and analysis for contributing to evidence-based decision-making in ways that will ultimately benefit Canadians. It does this by creatively applying innovative digital technologies to science and policy integration projects within the department. 

What is a centre of excellence?

A centre of excellence brings people from different disciplines together and provides them with leadership, best practices and shared facilities and resources to achieve goals and deliver performance and value

Dr. Vik Pant, NRCan’s Chief Scientist and Chief Science Advisor, says that this Digital Accelerator is unique within the federal government in terms of its mission, setup, results, and impact. 

“We have built a model for acceleration of digital transformation that is relevant for departments and agencies across the Government of Canada,” says Dr. Pant, who launched the Digital Accelerator in 2019 and has been scaling it since then. This pathfinding initiative has caught the attention of several other departments and agencies in the Government of Canada, which are now watching its progress with keen interest. 

Canada’s Chief Science Advisor agrees that participation across government could be highly beneficial to creating better public policy. “Supporting and sharing quality scientific research within the federal system is key to ensuring evidence-informed decision making,” says Dr. Mona Nemer. “The digital accelerator model that Vik Pant is leading on can help departments and agencies to think about new ways to leverage the masses of data they generate and collect. There is great potential for applying innovative digital solutions in many areas, including health, environment, fisheries, agri-food and transport.”

Projects with impact

The Digital Accelerator develops and integrates pilots, prototypes, and proofs-of-concept of advanced digital solutions, using technologies such as Machine Learning and Robotic Process Automation. It promotes a value co-creation approach wherein Data Scientists collaborate with domain science experts as well as policy leaders within the department. Additionally, the Digital Accelerator has partnered with leading software organizations including Microsoft, Google, and Slack for responsible pooling of talent, sharing of data, and exchange of knowledge.

For example:

  • An ENERGY STAR project that is being conducted jointly with Microsoft uses AI and Machine Learning to identify misuses of the ENERGY STAR brand online so consumers could make more informed product choices.
  • NRCan has been collaborating with organizations in academia, private industry, and government to apply geospatial analytics as well as location intelligence techniques to pinpoint the ideal placement of new electric vehicle charging stations from coast to coast to coast.
  • An ongoing project is applying Machine Learning techniques to support the transition away from diesel fuel and toward clean energy technologies in Canada’s remote and Northern communities.

Data Scientists in the Digital Accelerator collaborate with NRCan’s science experts, policy leaders, and program administrators to co-develop AI-centric software for advancing NRCan’s strategic mission and mandate. Dr. Pant continues to recruit highly qualified professionals to grow the top performing team of Data Science specialists within the Digital Accelerator. Dr. Krishan Rajaratnam, a Mathematician with a doctorate from the University of Toronto, states, “I joined Vik’s team in NRCan to apply latest AI tools and techniques for surfacing meaningful insights from information that are relevant for policy formulation and program design.”

Dr. Pant says in building and shaping the Digital Accelerator, he is aiming to create a digital-driven culture with space and opportunities for the creative collision of ideas. He’s modeled the Digital Accelerator on advanced technology accelerators in the industry such as DeepMind, Open AI, Layer 6, and Borealis AI. He says, “design thinking, agile principles, and minimum-viable-product (MVP) approach are enabling us to quickly take advantage of the benefit from a lean startup model”. His team of Data Scientists works on prototypes, pilots, and proofs-of-concept in close collaboration with policy leaders and science experts within the department.

“We are working towards a culture that allows us to fail early, fail fast, and get right back up,” he says, “because failure is an important contributor to trial-and-error learning”. “The idea is to be resilient and versatile by working on multiple projects in parallel. This way, if any single project fails early on and does so quickly, then we know that it wasn’t the right fit from the start, and so it doesn’t make sense for us to invest further resources on it—and we move on to the next project in the queue.”

So far, the NRCan Digital Accelerator has received almost three dozen proposals from science experts and policy leaders in the department. Dr. Pant says the first thing he looks for in a proposal is whether it responds to a key departmental priority. Specifically, he looks for opportunities to maximize impact: “there should be a persuasive value proposition attached to a project proposal for us to consider it. The link between a project and its contribution to the mission and mandate of the department should be compelling.”

It should also have transferability—that is, it applications to other (current or future) projects within or beyond NRCan should be self-evident. “We prefer projects that present opportunities for knowledge reuse over ‘one-and-done’ type of projects,” he says.

Lessons learned

Now that it’s been over two years since the launch of the Digital Accelerator, Dr. Pant has gained some perspective on what has worked best. He also has a better recognition of some of the challenges encountered by the Digital Accelerator as well as understanding how to overcome similar ones going forward. He says the most significant challenge of all turned out to be the widespread misperception that digital solutions cannot be used to drive transformational change in the federal government. 

“I beg to disagree,” he says. “I think what we have shown is that if you understand the problem you are trying to attack, and you bring in the right talent and networks of capabilities, you can really make an impact in a relatively short amount of time.”

In a strange way, he says, the Covid-19 pandemic actually catalyzed some of the success of the Digital Accelerator. As an unlikely but high-impact event, Covid-19 pushed people out of their comfort zones, and the results have been astounding.

“Look where we are today,” says Dr. Pant. “Everybody in government is using online services, web portals, and  video conferencing. If we could make such swift changes in how we communicate and collaborate on daily activities, why shouldn’t we be able to do that for other mission critical function in our enterprise as they relate to science and policy objectives?”

Looking to the future

One of Dr. Pant’s goals for the Digital Accelerator is to “future-proof” NRCan, its partners, and stakeholders in the natural resources industry. To do that, he is tightening the alignment of the resource and investment priorities in the Digital Accelerator to projects that the NRCan’s executive leadership is most interested in pursuing.

This ambitious line of thinking is underscored by another key lesson Dr. Pant learned over the first 18 months of leading the Digital Accelerator: he now thinks that the original goals of the Digital Accelerator were too modest.

“Reflecting back on how much has been achieved so quickly, we are now scaling up our expectations for the future more ambitiously than in the beginning,” he says.