Digital and Data Roundtable Summary: September 6, 2018 – Toronto, ON

Hosted by Arvind Gupta, Ilse Treurnicht, & Paul Thompson, Associate Deputy Minister, ISED
Area of Focus: The Future of Work

Highlight of Discussion

The new economy requires a workforce equipped with strong digital skills, and the ability to adapt to changing needs and new ways of working.

Key Opportunities / Considerations / Challenges


Digital literacy needs to feature more prominently in education at the K-12 levels, not just coding but also data science, privacy considerations, entrepreneurialism and understanding the application of digital technologies in other learning areas, as well as promoting cross-pollination of skills. Other countries, such as China are pushing digital skills for primary school-age children, and for Canada to compete globally, we need a similar approach. We cannot be sure what kind of jobs will exist in the future, and what exact skills will be needed. Thus, we must have a flexible approach to education and the ability to handle rapid change while continuing to focus on fundamental skills. Furthermore, many university students are lacking in basic numeracy skills; thus, we need to ensure that these skills are taught at every level.

We also need hybridized knowledge. It’s important for people to have STEM skills, but knowledge of other areas, such as social sciences, business, and humanities, are also necessary. We need to remember the importance of diversity in skills as we consider programs for students and adults. Not everyone needs to be a coder.  For example, we will continue to need accountants and those in the creative industries. We must ensure that all Canadians have a basic understanding of technology, so that they are able to work within/support a digital environment. There are also emerging areas where transition work can be focused (e.g. gerontology, robotics maintenance). Real life experience and work experience is also important – we shouldn’t focus exclusively on formal education in an academic setting. A significant challenge is that we need to think of skills needs 20 years out, not just 5 years out. As it is very difficult to predict trends that far into the future, we must equip students with critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration and communication skills so that they can adapt to changing environments. Another challenge is the inability for a coordinated, national approach to education because it is a provincial responsibility.

Digital literacy/Accessibility

Improved digital literacy is needed at every level of business, including at the governance level. Some entrepreneurs may not possess the digital know-how to help grow their business. Members of boards of directors should have strong knowledge about new technology and how it is changing business models and the workforce (e.g. AI). There is a lack of knowledge on data uses and how it can/will impact businesses. Additionally, there is resistance in some big corporations to research uses and improvements to digital technology, and to respond proactively to new threats and opportunities presented by digital technologies. These organizations need to be motivated to engage in research in this changing economy and workforce.

Furthermore, we need to cast a wider net with digital literacy. We need to remember that digital literacy is important in communities that are not usually represented or are marginalized, such as rural and / or Indigenous communities, and traditional sectors such as mining and forestry. It is more difficult for Canadians living outside of cities to grasp the extent of the changes underway, or have the opportunity to contribute. Lack of modern infrastructure is a big problem as well as affordable digital access. There also remains significant gaps in connectivity coverage.

Similarly, we need to continue encouraging women to be engaged in STEM fields. There is also a need to consider adult learning/mid-career training and how to ensure these populations are supported as work transitions from traditional sectors to new knowledge-based sectors.

We need to deepen our understanding of what is truly meant by the term digital literacy in order to equip citizens for work in a digital economy. It is much more than being able to connect to Facebook and social media. At the same time, for digital beginners who lack even a preliminary knowledge of digital terms, it is often about teaching them how to read the digital visual cues to be able to move through a variety of platforms such as banking, government services and purchasing transportation (e.g. menu icons, settings/tools icons, visual cues that indicate links).

Artificial Intelligence
AI has become pervasive in today’s society, and we need to be prepared for even wider penetration in all sectors of the economy. We need to increase our understanding of AI, and our ability to use it by planning for Canada’s AI future. Other countries, including India and China have already developed long term AI plans. Additionally, as a society, we need to have a discussion about AI and ethics. For instance, interpretation of data can be highly biased, so we need to ensure that designers of future systems based on AI take this into account. Education on AI, both function and ethics, needs to start young (e.g. China beginning AI education in primary school). Canadian AI companies, while at the forefront, are having trouble hiring for very specific skill sets, and are having difficulty recruiting women. The AI training in Canada is not sufficient for the advanced functions being sought. Would on the job training earlier in careers help? How can we get companies to make the investment?
Changing workforce

There are many workers and entrepreneurs who are mid-career and do not have the digital knowledge needed to engage with this new digital economy. It’s important to find ways to get them the tools they need to continue succeeding. We need to better assess what skills these workers have and how they can be applied/augmented to emerging and future areas of work.

It is also important to remember that not everyone needs to be an expert in technology. For instance, some children are not interested in continuing with STEM education, but they will need to be prepared to work in a world where technology plays an important role, the ability to work in a technology enabled environment still needs to be part of their skillset. Additionally, technology companies have jobs that are not tech-related, such as marketing and business, and these skills are critically important and needed.

Even in the past decade, the target has been shifting in terms of what skills are needed. Today’s focus is on STEM, but it wasn’t long ago that the focus was on skilled trades. While there are still gaps in the skilled trades, we need to be mindful of these shifts.

Changing labour model
Our current labour model is in response to an industrial era where someone would theoretically work for the same employer, or in the same sector, for their entire career. As we move to a knowledge economy, both patterns of work and labour models are changing rapidly. We need to prepare people for a changing economy where staying with the same employer may no longer be the norm. The future will likely involve more freelance or contract work (i.e. the gig economy). However, there is a support gap (e.g. EI system, health insurance/benefits, securing home purchase/rental) and social stigma to overcome. Even though freelance jobs are an important part of the new economy, there are many barriers for these entrepreneurs. In addition, not all SMEs have the same needs. Supports should be in place for those that want to grow rapidly, and for those that want to stay small but also be competitive.
Data is instrumental in the new digital economy; however, interpretation of this data inherently relies on human judgement. Understanding where data comes from, understanding how to evaluate and correct data biases, and understanding how to use and interpret data are all extremely valuable skills. Coding, AI and other digital skills require an understanding of data sets; understanding and effectively managing data are critical competencies for the future of all sectors.

Ideas / Outcomes

Data Literacy/Accessibility
Broadband coverage is essential to bridging the digital literacy gaps in rural and marginalized communities. For example, there are still rural communities who request hardcopy learning aids and books due to inability to connect. Libraries have been and will continue to be an important asset to be leveraged when it comes to reaching marginalized communities and populations (for learning and accessibility to digital services). Libraries may have an enhanced role in supporting communities through labour market transitions and preparing them for a new future.
Artificial Intelligence
Canada requires a long-term plan for AI, including early education and consideration of ethics/inherent data biases (e.g India and China plans).
Changing labour model
As we see a shift to the ‘gig economy’, governments should consider a review of the supports in place for freelance employees/entrepreneurs to overcome the current support gap (e.g. EI system, health insurance/benefits, securing home purchase/rental) and social stigma.
Data and Government
Governments collect and hold vast amounts of data, but this data is not being harnessed (e.g. leverage employment data for the benefit of Canadians – consider France’s ‘BonEmploi’, using government data and AI to help unemployed on path to work). There is also opportunity to leverage Canada’s data stores by partnering with other countries; a partnership that creates a larger, more diverse and robust data set, could make Canada’s data more valuable/useful.
Role of Government
We need to bridge the silos between the technology and other non-tech sectors, and the government could play a role in facilitating this process. Similarly, the government should incentivize big corporations to train their existing mid-career employees in the new skills that are needed in the digital economy. Furthermore, every economy in the world is experiencing the same problem. The government should think about partnering with other countries in order to learn and share ideas. For instance, in Singapore, there are funds available for individuals who want to take courses that will help them advance in the changing workforce. France has also introduced a similar model. There is also potential opportunity for government to serve as a ‘data and distribution centre’ for various non-profit and entrepreneurial skills programs, by developing credentialing systems and facilitating wider reach.

Attendee List

  1. Deloitte               
  2. ABC Life Literacy Canada
  3. Brand Innovators Labs
  4. Canadian Marketing Association
  5. Dot Health
  6. Goldspot Discoveries Inc.
  7. Oanda
  8. OCAD University
  9. SciNet
  10. STEM Fellowship
  11. Social Capital Partners
  12. Futurpreneur Canada
  13. Bounties Network          
  15. Manulife             
  16. SE Health
  17. Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB)
  18. University of Toronto
  19. Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE)
  20. Canada Learning Code
  21. SOTI
  22. Skills Ontario