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'Digital nation' key to recovery: academics

Industry Minister Tony Clement.

Chris Wattie /Reuters/Chris Wattie /Reuters

At a time when governments are spending billions on ailing industries, roads and bridges, a group led by the University of Waterloo has grabbed the attention of politicians and corporate leaders with a pitch to make digital media a key part of the country's economic-recovery plans. Organizers of a two-day conference that starts Monday in Stratford, Ont., are hoping to gain momentum for their push to make Canada a leader in the biggest technological revolution since the railway.

"We want to make Canada the first digital nation in the world," said Ken Coates, dean of arts at the University of Waterloo. Getting there, he said, involves not just supporting high-tech tool makers, but understanding how the rising use of digital media is changing the way we communicate, do business and access news and entertainment.

The event, called Canada 3.0, has snowballed in recent weeks, attracting more than 1,000 delegates and the attention of cabinet ministers, the Premier of Ontario and a who's who of high-tech leaders, including the oft-cited poster boy for Canadian innovation, Research In Motion co-CEO Michael Lazaridis. The federal government, eager to be seen taking action on its innovation agenda and to move on from its bailout of the auto industry, has been quick to get behind the project and there is talk Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make an appearance. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty will speak tomorrow.

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"For Canada to be a leader in innovation, we have to have a significant digital economy," Industry Minister Tony Clement said in an interview.

Mr. Clement will open the conference this morning and is planning his own summit later this month with industry leaders co-chaired by Mr. Lazaridis. Canada needs to develop a national strategy for digital media that includes a statement of goals and priorities for action, Mr. Clement said, and to back it up with public investment. "I want to take it to the next step," Mr. Clement said. "All of us are doing what we can to kick-start this."

Prof. Coates said taking a lead in digital media includes everything from developing copyright rules and compensation models for online content, to training and keeping in Canada people who understand this new economy. Among the ideas being floated is something called the Canada Project, a plan to get Canadian content online, starting with the holdings of the national archives and moving well beyond that.

Tom Jenkins, CEO of Waterloo software company Open Text and a driving force behind the conference, argues Canada needs a visionary project to capture the public imagination for what is a dry policy topic. Such a project would play a role similar to the space race, he said, which led to unprecedented technological advances.

A massive push to digitize Canadian content could be one such initiative, he said.

"To be a digital nation everybody has to be connected and you have to get all the content online," Mr. Jenkins said. To do that, he said, the country must develop new regulations to govern the exchange of information.

"This Internet way of exchanging information, there is no doubt the puck is going in this direction," he said. "What we do about it is the question."

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