And some key considerations for discussing its role and significance
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world, Canadian government and businesses rushed to balance public health with bridging fissures in the operation of our city and country. Despite their best efforts, the crisis highlighted the razor margins many businesses operate on and exposed the scant safety nets allotted to our most vulnerable populations. At the same time, technology emerged as a stable foundation for social, business and physical wellbeing – and, perhaps, the key to our economic recovery.
Technology is already supporting this recovery process by enabling people to work and purchase remotely – and safely. Forced to isolate and physically distance themselves, people use tech to maintain social connection, entertain themselves, and stay informed. And artificial intelligence – particularly machine and deep learning – is doing serious heavy lifting on data science questions ranging from economic recovery modelling to identifying viable antibodies for vaccine production.
There is therefore additional onus on how we refer to both tech and its role in Vancouver and BC’s economic trajectory. Here are five considerations and assumptions that could be integral to productive and thoughtful discussions of technology and its role in economic recovery.
- Technology enables rather than supplants essential services. It refers to tools so widely used, they’re taken for granted – including smartphones, websites, streaming services – that underpin our daily social and economic reality. Tech is pivotal precisely because it is broader than software developers, coders and the innovation ecosystem.
- The technology and innovation ecosystems represent a sizeable chunk of our economy. By last count, Metro Vancouver was home to between 60 to 75 percent of the 105,000 or so tech workers across 10,000 companies in British Columbia. The provincial sector generated more than 23 billion in revenues and accounted for $15 billion GDP annually – roughly 7% of BC’s economy. Since the true size and impact of the tech ecosystem goes well beyond what is captured by standard NAICS codes or census data, we must keep common pitfalls in mind whenever discussing the tech sector, and keep its significance in mind when planning and discussing relief measures.
- Tech-catalyzed disruptions of traditional industries – from publishing to ride-hailing – hold valuable clues for economic recovery planning. COVID-19’s impact is shatteringly evident, exposing how underprepared our society, infrastructure and finances are to deal with unanticipated global emergencies. As governments and businesses move from reactionary planning to proactive and inclusive economic recovery, they could take cues from the outcomes of tech disruptions in the last decade to anticipate potential issues ranging from inequality, skills training and education.
- This crisis has illustrated that technology is only as good, disruptive or malignant as people design or exploit it to be. The influence of tech and its capacity to govern all aspects of our lives, along with other consequences to social freedom and privacy, has understandably fuelled countless ethics debates and panels. While discussing or planning for tech’s role in economic recovery, we must take care to design systems to bridge or fill inequality gaps rather than widen them.
- We should consider tech-enabled mechanisms for economic resilience during any discussions of re-opening the economy. While disruptions to international supply chains exacerbated shortages in personal protective equipment, technologies such as 3D printing have helped with rapid prototyping and production of face shields. Machine learning is the basis of our health system’s ability to track, trace, monitor and manage COVID-positive cases and outbreaks. And numerous tech platforms supply brick-and-mortar businesses with diverse options for delivery and fulfillment. Examining the question of how tech can enable and build resilience could help us prepare for emergencies in the future.
There is a great deal to unpack in each one of these topics, and they are by no means exhaustive. The Vancouver Economic Commission and its partners are having some of these conversations today – particularly with regards to digitization as a catalyst for agile and impact business, and questions around private and public investment in skills training.
While the full economic repercussions of COVID-19 have yet to reveal themselves, WorkBC reported the loss of 132,000 jobs in March alone, and a recent survey of BC business networks revealed only 43 percent of businesses would be able to operate for another three months under the current circumstances. Of businesses temporarily closed, a little over half (53 percent) of those surveyed are confident they will be able to reopen once restrictions are lifted. As such, we already know the road to recovery will be a long one.
Shivam Kishore, Manager, Technology & Partnerships
Shivam leads and manages technology sector initiatives at the Vancouver Economic Commission, combining his educational background in biomedical engineering with his passion for seeing tech enable positive and sustainable change in societies. Over more than a decade in the professional services and consulting sector, Shivam’s technical expertise and strong business acumen has benefitted technology-focussed firms ranging from Global 100 enterprises to entrepreneurial startups.
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