It was high praise for a lobby group and a rare admission for a government minister.

Speaking to an audience at the SoftWorld 2002 Conference in Charlottetown in September, federal Industry Minister Allan Rock said the nation’s new innovation strategy owed a huge debt to analysis documents

prepared by the Information Technology Association of Canada.

“I will frankly admit that the government of Canada borrowed freely from the analysis by ITAC in crafting our own innovation strategy,” Rock said. “Our goal is nothing less than to make Canada the most innovative and therefore the most productive economy in the world, to increase our standard of living and to protect and strengthen our quality of life.”

Imagine the outcry if a government admitted it let the trucking industry write its transportation policy, or that strip-mining lobbyists determined its position on resource use.

No such fear of backlash with ITAC, an organization dedicated to the proposition that technology, innovation, productivity and quality of life are inextricably intertwined. And its CEO, Gaylen Duncan, does play what his online bio modestly calls “an important, if understated, role in influencing Canadian economic policy.”

Duncan is a 30-year veteran of the public and private sectors. That experience gives him access to high-level decision-makers in both corporate and government worlds.

“We’re certainly pleased with the way things are turning out,” says Duncan of the national innovation strategy. But he’s wary – not to mention pithy – in his assessment of the delivery of policy in the federal budget. “We’re seeing lots of talking the talk,” he quips. “Let’s see if there’s any walking the walk (in the federal budget). We’ve bought the champagne and it’s in the fridge, but we haven’t popped the cork yet.”

The innovation agenda isn’t ITAC’s only portfolio. Duncan says he’s spending a lot of time rehabilitating IT’s image in the eyes of government, the public and the media after what he calls “the dot-comicide era.”

“People think, ‘IT’s had its day. It’s over as a sector,’” he says.

ITAC’s working to convince people not to equate technology and the dot-com “abberation.” After all, the technology sector is still growing at 1.2 to 1.5 times the rate of the economy as a whole.

The shortage of skilled IT workers in Canada, another ITAC focus, hasn’t abated despite the downturn. “We still have skills problems, and it’s going to get worse,” he says. While the younger element of the workforce is IT savvy, that’s less the case among senior workers – one reason the uptake of technology by small and medium business is lagging, Duncan says. But the term “brain drain” – a catch-phrase for the exodus of skilled workers to more profitable pastures south of the border – isn’t bandied about as much, he says.

“It’s not the crisis it was a couple years ago,” he says, crediting changes in the general business environment led by the federal government.

In 2003, expect to see the “massive” behind-the-scenes progress on ITAC’s environmental initiatives. ITAC has earmarked $600,000 to develop an environmentally friendly vendor take-back plan to keep lead from CRTs and other semiconductor toxins and hazardous waste out of landfills.

Though the business plan is still under development, Duncan guesses a $25-per-PC consumer surcharge will reclaim material from computers that can be resold.

Duncan doesn’t see huge growth or decline for the industry through 2003, though he’s forecasting a return to a growth rate double that of the economy at large in 2004. For next year, he says, “the big unknown is the entire innovation agenda. How do we generate a more innovative economy?”

With great strides on the technology side, if the economy isn’t realizing productivity gains, it’s due to underinvestment in IT.

“We’re reaching critical mass in other sectors of the economy and starting to have an impact on their productivity,” he says.

Lay some of the credit for that critical mass on ITAC’s doorstep.

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