World Congress on Information Technology

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Montréal, Monday, October 22, 2012


Thank you for inviting me to address this important gathering. I have always been a strong believer in the power of collaboration, so it is with great optimism that I welcome you to Canada and to this congress on our digital future.

It would be an understatement to say we have lots to talk about.

As we all know, the digital revolution has transformed whole aspects of our lives and societies. To the telescope and microscope—which enabled us to see far and to see small, respectively—we have added the computer and the Internet, which allow us to find, gather, store, relate and experiment—in short, to see broadly and deeply.

Harnessed to the Internet, the computer has made it possible for us to share and store information to an extent never before imagined. More precisely, it is estimated that we now generate and store online 2.5 exabytes of computer data every day.

That means that every two days, we’re uploading more data than has been printed in all of human history!

Indeed, the rapid and profound changes taking place in our world today are in many ways the result of the great leaps we have made in information and communications technology.

And all indicators point to even greater changes to come.

Consider the fact that, over the course of the next 40 years, science is predicted to create more knowledge than has been created in the history of our species.

As Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, puts it:

“What is coming is likely to be even more significant that any past transformation. We have already seen how mobile communications and the World Wide Web are opening up global society, providing information and education on a scale vastly larger than ever before. But this is only the beginning of how our new technologies will change us.”

The mind boggles.

And it also raises the question: if this is just the beginning of change, how are we to prepare best for the future?

A curious feature about increased connectivity is that it both enables and requires greater collaboration and enhanced innovation.

That is why you have gathered here in Montréal. Over the course of the next few days, you will address the many challenges and opportunities set in motion by information technologies, with the aim of creating a blueprint for the future of our global digital society.

Your ambition reminds me of the story of a young mathematician and engineer named Claude Elwood Shannon, who, in 1948, published what has been called “the magna carta of the information age” by developing the revolutionary concept of digital transmission.

For his efforts, Shannon is today known as “the father of the information age.”

Our challenge, as heirs to Shannon’s digital legacy, is to tackle immediate issues such as privacy, data security, media literacy, online safety and intellectual property, to name a few.

We must also focus broadly on the bigger picture: government, education, science, health care, society—all are being transformed because, as physicist and humanitarian Ursula Franklin eloquently put it, “technology has built the house in which we all live.”

Simply put, each advance in our technology has a ripple effect on our culture and society. It's like a pebble being thrown in the water. Our task, therefore, is to imagine and develop ways in which technology can help us to build a smarter, more caring world.

In so many ways, information and communications technologies have already changed our world for the better. As you know, citizens everywhere are defining new roles for themselves in their workplaces, their communities and their governments, all thanks to greater connectivity.

The sharing of ideas, of learning, and of experiences is taking place in an unprecedented manner, often among people who otherwise would never have met. It is an exciting, at times daunting, moment in the history of humanity, full of new challenges and new opportunities.

In many ways, I think we can get a glimpse of future possibilities by looking at the effect of new technologies on the lives of young people.

As a recent report by the Community Foundations of Canada put it, young people today are remarkably “wired, aware and collaborative.” They are flexible, comfortable with new technologies and virtual networks, and eager to challenge the status quo.

In fact, a remarkable 97 percent of Canadians between the ages of 17 and 35 have created a Facebook profile. In the population as a whole, one in two Canadians use Facebook, reflecting Canada’s embrace of information and communication technologies.

But there is a dark side to the changes taking place. As the Community Foundation’s report goes on to say, today’s youth are “growing up in an era of complexity and uncertainty that has delayed, or even destroyed, the landmarks that once signaled a transition from one phase of life to another.”

Without a doubt, there are many reasons for the complexity and uncertainty of our era, but it cannot be denied that digital technologies have, to borrow a phrase from author Douglas Coupland, “accelerated” our culture.

I urge you to ask yourselves as leaders how we can maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of a global digital society, not just for young people but for everyone. How do we create a digital society that balances excellence and equality of opportunity?

There are some wonderful examples of such leadership in our world today, in which social and technological innovation are proceeding hand in hand.

One example is in the world of higher education, where Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are collaborating to offer online courses free of charge to anyone with an Internet connection.

This is a great example of the democratization of knowledge through technology, and it has the potential to change peoples’ lives for the better.

As governor general, I have made innovation one of the priorities of my mandate. Innovation, in essence, is about crafting or applying new ideas to improve the way we do things. It’s about seeing things differently, and imagining that which could be.

The collaborative nature of the digital world makes it an ideal place to incubate innovation. As Jon Gertner points out in his book, The Idea Factory—the story of the famous Bell Labs in New Jersey—innovation is not a one-directional process from education and research, to experimentation, to practical application. Rather, innovation occurs back and forth at various points along that linear storyline.

The term “innovation ecosystem” has also been used to describe this non-linear messy approach.

By extension, Gertner goes on to say, innovation is not usually brought about by one person, but rather is the result of several people working on various aspects of the same problem. In short, the process of innovation is shared.

With this in mind, let me close by sharing with you three elements from the coat of arms I adopted upon becoming governor general, which may help to underline my remarks today.

At the crest, there is a burning candle, symbolizing not only learning and discovery, but also the transmission of learning. The sharing of knowledge collectively enlightens us.

At the base of my coat of arms, there is a wavy band inscribed with ones and zeros, representing the flow of information and digital communication.

And the motto, Contemplare Meliora, meaning “To envisage a better world,” alluding to a famous line written by George Bernard Shaw:

“You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”

I hope that you have a wonderful stay in Montréal. I would now like to declare the World Congress on Information Technology open.

Thank you.