The Wired, Wired West

Who Knew? The Alberta Government Has A Plan To Make This Province The Most Wired In The World

By Mark Wolfe and Mary Ann Moser

Though most of us haven’t heard about it, the Alberta government is now rolling out what may be the most aggressive information highway program of any jurisdiction in Canada. SuperNet is a $300-million project ($193-million of it public) designed to connect more than 420 Alberta communities to a high-speed digital network—a kind of intraprovincial Internet that will put all of Alberta’s schools, libraries, government offices and medical facilities in contact with each other and key digital resources. A joint effort of the province, Bell West (formerly Bell Intrigna) and Axia SuperNet Ltd., a subsidiary of Axia NetMedia Corporation of Calgary, the network is expected to be completed in 2004. The project comprises a “base” area network of 27 communities where competitive Internet services already exist, and an “extended” area network of 395 communities where the private sector has had little incentive to build. While Axia will be retained by the province for 10 years as the net- work’s contract operator, Bell West, with its $102-million contribution, ultimately will own the base network.

SuperNet is just one piece of a larger information and communications technology (ICT) strategy and action plan now being implemented in this province, a strategy originally prepared by a task force of the Alberta Science and Research Authority. The authority was established by the government in 1994 to promote science and research at a time when governments around the world were responding to studies and reports that suggested science and research would be key factors of success in a global economy.

The ICT strategy now being implemented is based in part on recommendations from interviews with about 60 people in business and education in 1997 and ’98. They worked in the areas of communications equipment, software development, the Internet, multimedia, e-commerce, education and training, geomatics, agriculture, forestry, medicine, military, government services and computer products and services. They were project managers in new government agriculture and health initiatives, university- based research program leaders and presidents of private sector companies interested in ICT.

In 1998, the Alberta government published its report outlining a recommended strategy for ICT in Alberta, prepared by an information technology task force set up by then- minister of Innovation and Science Lorne Taylor. The strategy promotes a four-fold policy: 1) investing in education; 2) developing ICT infra- structure; 3) increasing investment in research and development; and 4) encouraging growth in the ICT business sector.

Government investment toward these objectives has been significant. Since 1998, it has invested $51-million to double the number of training spaces for students in ICT at Alberta universities, colleges and technical institutes, plus instituted a $500-million science and engineering endowment fund parallel to the Alberta Heritage Fund for Medical Research. Major investments in research and development include creation of the Alberta Informatics Circle of Research Excellence (iCORE), an organization designed to attract and fund top ICT researchers at Alberta universities. It receives $10-million annually. The province has also invested several hundred million in ICT-related research and education facilities on campuses across Alberta. A February press release announcing actual construction of the SuperNet network says that Albertans “eagerly awaiting the arrival of Alberta SuperNet” will finally learn about construction in their locales.

But is the Alberta SuperNet a widely supported program eagerly awaited by Albertans or is it just another engineering megaproject designed by and for a political and economic power base eager to reward rural voters? AlbertaViews asked Mark Wolfe and Mary Anne Moser, two researchers interested in the social impact of technology, to discuss the provincial ICT strategy as a whole and Alberta SuperNet in particular.

Mark Wolfe: Leaving aside the wider question of general technological intrusion on our lives, I seriously question the planning process around the Alberta SuperNet. Keep in mind, the networks being constructed comprise only the hardware component of the project. In itself, there’s nothing terribly questionable about building for high-speed Internet-like access at reasonable cost. If I lived in rural Alberta, I’d be delighted with the project and couldn’t wait for it to light up in my community. What is questionable is the project’s planning process and the number of blind spots in its conception—in user expectations, efficiencies and social impact, for example. The government’s overall strategy does the good work of putting in place an important infrastructure for engaging the complexities of life in a global social economy. But its decision to build the network holus bolus, without piloting the services or even polling Albertans in any significant way (beyond hauling in people, primarily in the business sector, they knew would be proponents of the project), might very well leave us with a very expensive telecommunications system heavily subsidized by urban taxpayers but ultimately underused.

Look at the last time Albertans were polled in a significant way, that is, during the 1997 Growth Summit, from which Alberta’s (ICT) strategy largely originates. Albertans very clearly singled out education as the top priority in preparing for the new economy. In the summit’s final report, these same citizens are described as going further to spell out what they mean by education: namely, the recruitment and training of the top teachers in the country, smaller class sizes and an emphasis on technology as only one enabler, not an end unto itself. In light of the ongoing teachers’ disputes, it appears the government need not have bothered spending six months and taxpayer dollars to ask people what they want, since they’ve gone ahead anyway to do exactly what people said not to do.

One of the main blind spots in the SuperNet planning process stems from the more-and-faster-is- better assumption behind it. The value of information is in its quality, not its abundance. Indeed, the low quality of information we’re already drowning in is precisely a result of a build-first, mitigate-later approach of laying down pipes and letting the content somehow just sort itself out. This in turn fosters other blind spots, in the form of ongoing issues of intellectual property, privacy and increased access to online pornography. What is missed in the government rhetoric is that by connecting everyone, you increase complexity rather than reduce it.

Unfortunately, the very language of the strategy documents suggests all we have to do is hitch a ride on the global ICT gravy train and every- thing will magically fall into place. Society is an integrated and complex whole that emerges from the interaction of all its members and institutions together. It would have been a lot more efficient and effective to have had better public involvement in the strategy up front.

Mary Anne Moser: I think Albertans can feel quite confident that it is a considered strategy. Although consideration of social impacts is not explicit in the final recommendations, positive social results are an ultimate goal of the strategy. But Albertans should also know that, in the end, all of these plans require that they want to, and decide to, adopt the technology identified as key by government planners.

You have raised three questions that Albertans should be involved in answering with respect to the government’s ICT strategy: 1) What is the social impact of information and communications technology and how can we ensure positive overall effects? 2) How do we deal with the information overload that computers and networks foster? 3) How can Albertans be involved in the development of an ICT strategy that will affect them?

These are all really big questions. I want to add a fourth: What is the effect of globalization and what role does technology play? Let’s take them in turn.

The social impact of new technology is impossible to accurately predict. Possible scenarios range from Big Brother watching you to a revival of anarchism, thanks to the Internet. Setting aside these extremes for this discussion, I advocate public involvement in the day-to-day understanding of the social impact of technology, which means understanding and consciously shaping how technology will affect you. Getting involved is the best way to ensure that the outcomes meet the needs of Albertans.

Alberta’s ICT strategy will affect Albertans most directly through SuperNet. However, SuperNet will not go to individual homes and businesses. It will connect a local school, hospital, library or municipal office, forming a hub that will allow Internet service providers to offer rates in these communities competitive with those offered in cities. Albertans can get most directly involved by being proactive to ensure the private sector companies interested in their region provide the services they want. The strategy is designed to provide the same advantage to rural and urban dwellers alike.

It is also designed to get some of the expertise that tends to accumulate in cities out into rural areas, including health and education. For example, one project under way intends to use SuperNet in smaller rural schools to offer courses that have typically not been offered due to a lack of teacher expertise. We can envision the same scenario in health care, where rural health practitioners could have access to experts in cities to aid in diagnosis. The network provides bandwidth that enables video conferencing not feasible on today’s commercial Internet.

The ICT strategy is intended to benefit Albertans over the long term, to diversify Alberta’s economy so that it is not so resource-dependent. A significant portion of the strategy is designed to change the profile of Alberta in the decades to come so that companies in the information sector—makers and suppliers of networks, cell phones, computing hardware and software, to name a few—are compelled to locate in Alberta. This means Alberta has to invest in students and researchers who create, fuel and staff these kinds of companies.

As for information overload, the benefit of information now available is not, as I see it, determined by its scarcity. In fact, the more information there is, the more jobs there will be for editors. As a former editor, I can only say, how can that be bad?

It’s easy to criticize technology and its proliferation, but we all use it. The information now available is, for the most part, a boon to society. Public terminals in libraries are almost always in use. At the Calgary Drop-In Centre, where I volunteer, I see the computer terminals also being well used, for learning to type, learning computer skills, writing résumés, and for entertainment.

Even though it has not taken the shape of government-organized public events, there has been public involvement in the form of consultation about the development of the ICT strategy. Several hundred Albertans were interviewed, primarily stakeholders in education, health and industry.

It makes sense to continue to invest part of the ICT budget in community needs assessment so people can think about how (or whether) they want to implement ICT in their community. As Ursula Franklin pointed out in a Massey lecture given in the early 1990s, technology is often introduced with an air of boosterism, presented as an improvement that will work wonders on everyday life. And of course the reality is that not everyone will want to adopt it. For example, there are now cities defining themselves as “slow cities,” consciously protecting an unhurried pace of life, just as “smart cities” define themselves as incorporating technology to keep pace with an emerging information society. We who make up our communities can make our own choices.

On the globalization question, discussion tends to get ideological. Some of the perceived issues with Alberta’s ICT strategy are rooted in a critique of the industry-driven push toward globalization. On the other hand, proponents of the modern business growth model say that everyone eventually benefits. Let’s imagine, they say, there is a competition for dollars between building roads and building hospitals. What is the best investment to improve long-term overall health? The roads were built initially to support industry—the primary beneficiaries were certainly the transport industry and related goods industries. The spin- off effect, however, was improved access for individuals to big-city hospitals, a wider range of choices of medical facilities and services, better access to health education.

The reason it is not clear which argument is more convincing is, first, the distribution of wealth does show that the income gap is increasing between the haves and have-nots worldwide. However, the United Nations’ human development report shows that places like Canada, Norway and Australia are the best places in the world to live, according to a wide range of indicators, including formal education, health care, infant mortality, literacy and civic participation. Investment in technology is part of what makes these good places to live.

For Albertans, the ICT strategy is intended to address an emerging technical access divide between rural and urban populations. It was also designed to afford people more choice—to telecommute, for example, or to operate an online business outside a major city—and to ensure Alberta did not become one of Canada’s, or the world’s, poorer regions as others developed their information sectors proactively.

It is important to be clear about the investment we are talking about.

MW: Let’s compare this province’s efforts at ICT planning to other programs worldwide. The program that comes closest is the federal government’s Connection Canadians pro- gram, launched under John Manley in the late 1990s with the aim of enhancing Canada’s ability to compete in what was then the “new economy.” The program has enjoyed some minor successes, including the SchoolNet project, which has put some terrific Canadiana on the Web, but has otherwise been a bit of a bust because almost the entire emphasis was on hardware and infrastructure. Only now is content an issue, but at least it is an issue.

Hearings like the CRTC’s into New Media in the mid-1990s showed leadership and social accountability in “taking it to the people.” Unfortunately, the commission completely dropped the ball on the outcome.

Outside of Canada, Europe is the paradigm because the Europeans are very serious and aggressive about public input. Several online forums for research and public policy attest to this. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s web site is one example, but there are many others, including the European Union homepage and various university and think-tank groups. Finland, for instance, is widely considered a world success story—a small juris- diction that has not only joined the “new economy” but led it with panache. There are simply too many sites to list, but the common theme through most of them is the over- riding question What are the risks and benefits of investing massively in ICT, and how does this advance society as a whole? The various green papers you can download from the EU, for example, reflect the social maturity and accountability you’d expect from a government.

This contrasts starkly with the engineering and economics bumph produced by the Alberta government, which paints very rosy pictures of an Alberta wired to the hilt. Some of this is just plain silly and some of it very worrisome. For example, the government’s central ICT strategy policy document includes a section allegedly written by two grade school children who depict a spectacular day-in-the-life in the wired universe of a professional mom and dad and all their electronic gizmos. The cereal-box rhetoric may be entertaining, but it’s strictly empty calories.

In an earlier policy document, called Get Ready Alberta, the government is less ingenuous. This time the focus is on children destined to become, of course, a scientist and a computer scientist. There’s a third child depicted but she is left non- descript, as if the government just couldn’t bring itself to even speak the words “artist” or “nurse” or “teacher,” let alone “social worker” or “bus driver”—in other words, occupations of the majority of the population. But later on in the same document, the government comes right out and says one of its key strategies is to create an innovation and science culture, starting with Alberta’s young people. This normally wouldn’t be of any particular concern, because we need such people and we should promote these careers. But when you look at the extent to which the engineering and so-called “hard” sciences are favoured and supported in this province, it’s easy to see there’s a very deliberate social engineering effort. That’s what makes it different from a Finland or an Ireland, for example, where the new economy is progressing on rails but artists’ portraits still adorn the currency.

MAM: Alberta’s program is not unlike other programs in North America in the sense that most recognize that education, industry and infrastructure all need to be simultaneously addressed in order to see evidence of impact. SuperNet has attracted attention from around the world as a fairly novel project. I wouldn’t be so hard on the initial focus on infrastructure. The recognition of the role of content has followed. We are talking about mammoth projects here—and we need to take what seem to be baby steps to get anywhere.

If the Internet has shown us any- thing, it is that it is impossible to predict or prescribe the uses of new technology and what the content will be. What Alberta is doing appears very sound when seen in the light of ICT strategies worldwide.

MW: Alberta has the most heavily subsidized private sector in Canada and, at the same time, the lowest per capita spending in the nation on social welfare. Part of this ICT strategy comprises needed efforts toward diversification. But we are talking billions of dollars in business subsidies over the years, which can’t help but raise serious questions about comparative support for things like the school system, kindergarten to Grade 12. For example, to help hit its target of 140,000 ICT workers by 2010, the province is encouraging ICT as a career path by increasing the exposure to ICT, starting in kindergarten—a rather grim irony in light of recent teachers’ disputes.

To follow on a previous point, I also worry about the status of non- ICT or engineering professionals. The province has allocated half a billion dollars as an engineering education endowment fund and is spending millions more to attract top ICT researchers  and  lure  already  well- paid ex-Albertans back from Silicon Valley. At the same time, many ministries’ budgets have been cut, in some cases by up to half of last year’s amounts (e.g., Agriculture), yet the budget for Innovation and Science increased this year by almost 40 per cent. The message is this: If you’re ICT or hard sciences, you’re welcome. Presumably, the rest of us are free to bugger off.

Finally, there’s the ever-present and unquestioned assumption that, unless we become a leader in the “new economy,” we’ll be left behind. This is probably the biggest mistake. A recent study from the United Kingdom of the world’s knowledge- based economies ranks Canada dead last in terms of the ability to innovate and move innovation to market. Our brightest light, Toronto, ranks below even Buffalo, New York. Vancouver was the only other Canadian jurisdiction to even make the ranking. The reason cited for this abysmal performance is the Canadian obsession with competing with the U.S. in forging the “new economy.” Rather, we should focus on strengths and work toward developing niche expertise, as the multi- media industry in Alberta has done so successfully.

MAM: It is hard to argue convincingly for investment at the expense of other immediate needs—for example, health and education funding crises, homelessness, food banks. This kind of comparison, however, distorts the investment. Of Alberta’s total annual expenditures, Health and Wellness accounts for about 36 per cent, Learning about 24 per cent and the ICT strategy we are talking about, 1 per cent. It is also important to view the money as an investment that may make a difference down the road in all of these areas, including the provincial budget for health, education and social and cultural projects. Albertans need to be versed in the new directions of technology so they can actively shape where and how we use that technology.

MW: Unfortunately, the whole strategy behind the SuperNet comes across as a science and engineering power base looking after its own. It’s telling, for example, that the “relevant studies” cited by the strategy come from an engineering/economics perspective only. This is also reflected in the current Alberta budget, which does little to dispel what researcher and author Kevin Taft (Shredding the Public Interest: Ralph Klein and 25 Years of One- Party Government) calls an entrenched and unquestioned culture of corporate welfare in this province.

The real irony is that, at the universities of Calgary and Alberta, we have probably the best researchers in the country on ICT and community impacts. Maria Bakardjieva at the U of C has a long-term Internet-in- the-home study in the works which has helped earn her a fellowship at Oxford. Edna Einsiedel is a U of C Distinguished Scholar and world- renowned researcher of issues pertaining to science and technology in society. And David Mitchell at the U of C, probably the leading ICT uses researcher in the country, is emerging as a world leader in the field.

Just to name a few.

In fact, this kind of research might be underway by January. The Alberta SuperNet Research Alliance is awaiting approval on its application to the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for funding on a three-year study of the SuperNet as a template project for the rest of the country.

Comprising academic, industry and community partners, the Alliance has assembled top researchers  from Alberta and British Columbia to study the impact of the SuperNet in areas such as tele-health, disaster services, innovation and business modeling, community and user impacts and cultural industries. Led by David Mitchell, the group has support in principle from Axia itself, the Alberta Library consortium and the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association.

MAM: Technology has perhaps caused problems at the same time as it sets out to alleviate them. For example, the Smart Communities movement arose, to a large extent, out of a desire to use technology to address the problems of social disintegration of communities that resulted from the self-same technology. Scale is a factor—we are faced with new global dynamics. There are many unknowns about the effect of the global economy and where we need to apply our efforts to ensure benefit rather than harm.

Technology has such tremendous impact on so many aspects of life that it seems to have gotten away on us. But at the same time, it pushes control out to the margins. So, at the heart of the issue is the need for Albertans to be aware of the direction Alberta is headed with its ICT strategy and to get involved in shaping it.

MW: It still comes down to looking at projects like these in the context of society as a whole, not society defined narrowly in terms of economics, governance and education. It means having a public debate, which will bring a varied perspetive. This is neither difficult nor expensive—it literally would have cost about one-tenth of 1 per cent of the entire SuperNet budget to have held a series of citizen juries not unlike what Edna Einsiedel held for her national study on genetically modified foods. The format is that you bring together a jury of citizens on both sides of the debate, including experts in the area, and bring forward project proponents to, liter- ally, make their case. That way, there’s no question about social accountability or stacking the deck, and it costs a lot less than marshalling input from thousands of people in 40-some communities as they did with the Growth Summit. It’s also a productive forum because proponents can learn a great deal in the process. It’s just good knowledge and risk management.

In the context of the ICT strategy specifically, however, three questions come to mind that represent the sort of contradictions involved here.

Why, when teachers and parents are fed up with broken promises and compromises in education, are we 1) spending large amounts of taxpayers’ money to lure back to Alberta already well-paid people who’ve made a personal decision not to live here? 2) spending $500-million to further promote the training of ICT engineers and technicians when everyone else is being cut? 3) building the entire network holus bolus with no pilot programming—especially when there are world leaders in this kind of study right here in Alberta and when the cost of such research is negligible by comparison?

MAM: It’s an unassailable argument that basic needs have to be met before investment in ICT can be made. The recent teachers’ strike puts this into high relief, and I can only hope that the importance of education in general will be positively brushed with increased awareness of its role in an emerging knowledge economy. They should not be competing interests. We are not talking about “trading” investment in education with investment in technology.

The public debate should discuss the appropriate level of investment in teachers and librarians who are comfortable with technology and understand its partial role in creating confident and knowledgeable adults. Hopefully, this debate will not pit K–12 against post-secondary investment, as it is part of the same continuum. Similarly, there need not be tension between the investment in SuperNet and research studies on SuperNet pilot programs. They can go hand in hand.

The public debate should also consider the return on investments in health and medicine-related technologies.

Finally, the discussion should debate the question of balance. The ICT strategy, and the funding to take action on its recommended points, was grounded in an interest in diversifying Alberta’s economy so that it would not be so reliant on the volatile economy of natural resources. At this point, the ICT sector is no less volatile. What is the right balance of investment in ICT compared to health, education, community programs or other important areas? The complicating factor is the social impact of technology, and this must be considered along with its ability to bring more long-term economic stability to the province.

We need to remind ourselves that a strong economy is not an end in itself. Rather it is a means to achieve the things that really matter.

Mark Wolfe is Communications researcher and doctoral candidate in the faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary.

Mary Anne Moser is Editor of Immersed in Technology, published by MIT Press. She is also a doctoral candidate at the U of C in the Resources and Environment program.

 

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