First Published in The Huffington Post: Updated:
Pioneering computer scientist Alan Kay once noted that “a point of view is worth 80 IQ points” and it’s disconcerting that some Canadian governments, businesses and so-called experts are falling into an equivalent IQ deficit of outdated language and backward thinking when it comes to technology and energy policy.
A century ago a computer wasn’t a machine — it was a job title. It referred to people who spent their days doing arithmetic. Then processors were created that took over the role, and society adjusted the word to a new meaning.
In today’s rapidly transforming economy it’s important to adjust more quickly.
Here are some recent examples: Political speeches in support of pipelines, attacks against singer Neil Young, ‘energy’ conferences, special ‘energy’ investment inserts in traditional national newspapers and thoughtful pieces like this one in the Globe, all purportedly talk about energy. But, instead of energy, in Canada they really mean “oil and gas.”
Oil and gas have been the default energy option for society for much of the last century and will continue to be important. But oil and gas should clearly no longer be a synonym for energy.
Nuclear and hydroelectric options continue to be viable choices globally. Greener energy options such as solar, wind and tidal are improving in performance at a much faster pace. Different alternatives are preferable in different places and at different times.
Ottawa and traditional Canadian media have fallen into the habit of using the words “energy policy” when what they really mean is “oil and gas” policy in the same way that Kodak said photography when it really meant film. Long term this kind of thinking gets you in trouble.
Similarly, the words “technology” and “information technology” are now being used interchangeably in Canada and that’s a big mistake.
It’s true that IT has grown to be an immense part of our economy and that it permeates an increasing number of other industries but it’s not true that it is the only — or always — the most important technology.
Beyond IT there are other exciting technology areas such as stem cell research, genomics, 3D printing, drones, nanotechnology, sensors and robotics. When our language equates technology with information technology then those other exciting areas of opportunity can be dismissed before they’re even considered.
What were the biggest technology and energy stories of 2013?
Fortune magazine recently declared Elon Musk as the Business Person of the Year. They highlighted the phenomenal growth of his electric car company Tesla; the growing capabilities of his spaceship and space technology company SpaceX; the continuing growth of his solar power company Solar City and his audacious proposal for next generation transportation using a Hyperloop system.
All of his bets are on technology but none of them are on traditional information technology. All of his bets are related to energy, in one way or another, but none of them are about oil and gas per se.
Then look at Google, one of the great consumer IT companies. Notice where Google is investing lately: robotics and smart home technology. It is not putting its vast resources only into traditional IT or dot.com type companies.
In 2013, Canadian governments, businesses and entrepreneurs made a big bet on the oil and gas industry with a side order of information technology. The outcome was an economy and stock market that lagged our major competitors.
In 2014, we need to expand our horizons to consider the larger opportunities available to those that solve the globes big problems in energy, healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, the environment and education.
We need to change our thinking and the language that frames it. We need more forward-thinking like that at Google and from Elon Musk; who, by the way, holds a Canadian citizenship but chose to live and work in the United States where business and government language is more fluid and not nearly as tightly defined.