ICT: Harnessing Their Power to Build a Sustainable Canada

By Council of Canadian Academies

The Council of Canadian Academies is an independent, not-for-profit organization that began operation in 2005. The Council supports independent, authoritative, and evidence-based expert assessments that inform public policy development in Canada.

It’s a Wednesday morning in 2025. As you enjoy the last few minutes of sleep, data gathered from sensors in your mattress help make adjustments to the time of your alarm, and gradually turn on the lights in your room. When your alarm does sound, you are already nearly awake. Making your way to the bathroom, you brush your teeth using a paste that requires no water or rinsing — a now near-universal practice.  As you look into your mirror, an integrated display shows real-time traffic information and several suggested routes to work by car and transit. However this morning, unusual congestion on the road has made the computer suggest catching a ride with a co-worker.  As you dress, and get ready for the day, your smartphone notifies you when your colleague is drawing near. You walk outside and are picked up 15 seconds later.

Although this scenario takes place over 10-years in the future, the interconnected role that information and communication technologies (ICT) could play in our lives is truly within our grasp.

ICT have the power to fundamentally transform how people live, work, and communicate with one another.

However, how can a society harness these new and emerging technologies in such a way that it can lead to sustainability?

Enabling Sustainability in an Interconnected World, a new report from the Council of Canadian Academies, looks at this question and identifies opportunities and current practices from Canada and around the world that are taking advantage of the potential power of ICT.

Prepared by a 13 member expert panel and led by David Miller, President and CEO of WWF-Canada, the panel concludes within the report that there are substantial opportunities for ICT to promote and support sustainability that build on current Canadian strengths and capacities, but that Canada is a long way from realizing their full potential.

Opportunities identified in the report vary from small-scale to large-scale, and centre on six areas that relate to the daily lives of Canadians.

  • Environmental monitoring: Using reliable sensor networks for timely and accurate environmental health data and how it changes over time.
  • Smart interconnected utilities: Implementing smart grids for electricity and water to minimize environmental impacts, reduce costs, and ensure service reliability.
  • Smart interconnected buildings and neighbourhoods: Using ICT applications such as building control systems to improve electrical efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Smart interconnected mobility: Using ICT applications to strengthen connections between individuals, businesses, and other goods and services to improve daily life in areas like public transit.
  • Smart interconnected production: Implementing ICT into manufacturing (i.e. smart motors) or agriculture (i.e. irrigation) to improve various processes and overall efficiency.
  • Healthy people and healthy communities:  Using ICT to help address social challenges, help communities adapt to a changing climate, and enable new forms of participatory decision-making.

Canada has already demonstrated leadership in ICT in a number of ways. From innovative networks for research and knowledge such as the NEPTUNE sensor network, and the CANARIE research and innovation network, to being the home for various higher education institutions that specialize in ICT research, Canadians can be proud of the contributions the country has made.

Yet despite these achievements, a number of important challenges exist:

  • Canadian business lags behind other peer countries in ICT investment;
  • Canada is not ranked highly in terms of ICT penetration and diffusion among individuals; and
  • Access to high quality broadband internet is varied, with inadequate connectivity in some rural areas, among others.

However, many promising practices currently exist in Canada, and around the world, that can help to address these challenges.

For example, broadband policies in Australia and Germany have set ambitious targeted goals for minimum internet speeds to connect their populations digitally and provide excellent internet access.

In Vienna, Austria, ICT has been integrated into public transport for user engagement and direct marketing, making the city a prime example of an innovative transit system.

Demonstration projects can also be an instrumental way to harness ICT. The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at the University of British Columbia provides data and support for ongoing research projects on sustainable building performance, and facilitates the interplay between the building, its sub-systems, and its inhabitants.

To realize success, connecting technologies together and coordinating policies and systems will be important. An integrated approach to ICT adoption will allow planners and others to build a strong foundation for an innovative and sustainably progressive society.

While some may think of ICT as gadgets meant to entertain, they are so much more than that. These devices, applications, systems, and platforms have the ability to transform our lives, improving efficiency and communication.

If the potential of ICT are fully realized, 2025 may come sooner than you think.

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