It’s a Wednesday morning in 2025. As you enjoy the last few minutes of sleep, data gathered from sensors in your mattress help adjust the time of your alarm, and gradually turn on the lights in your room. When your alarm does sound, you are already nearly awake. Making your way to the bathroom, you brush your teeth using a paste that requires no water or rinsing — a now near-universal practice. As you look into the mirror, an integrated display shows real-time traffic information and several suggested routes to work by car and transit. However, this morning, due to unusual congestion on the road, the computer suggests catching a ride with a co-worker. As you dress and get ready for the day, your smart phone notifies you when your colleague is drawing near. You walk outside and are picked up 15 seconds later.
Although this scenario takes place over 10-years in the future, the role that information and communication technologies (ICT) could play in our lives is truly within our grasp.
ICT have the power to fundamentally transform how people live, work, and communicate with one another.
However, how can a society harness these new and emerging technologies in such a way that it can lead to sustainability?
Enabling Sustainability in an Interconnected World, a new report from the Council of Canadian Academies, looks at this question and identifies opportunities and current practices from Canada and around the world that take advantage of the potential power of ICTs.
The report was prepared by a 13-member expert panel led by David Miller, President and CEO of WWF-Canada. The panel concludes in the report that there are substantial opportunities for ICTs to promote and support sustainability that build on current Canadian strengths and capacities, but that Canada is a long way from realizing their full potential.
Opportunities identified in the report vary from small-scale to large-scale, and focus on six areas that relate to the daily lives of Canadians.
- Environmental monitoring: Using reliable sensor networks for timely and accurate environmental health data and how it changes over time.
- Smart interconnected utilities: Implementing smart grids for electricity and water to minimize environmental impacts, reduce costs, and ensure reliable service.
- Smart interconnected buildings and neighbourhoods: Using ICT applications such as building control systems to improve electrical efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
- Smart interconnected mobility: Using ICT applications to strengthen connections between individuals, businesses, and other goods and services to improve daily life in areas like public transit.
- Smart interconnected production: Implementing ICTs into manufacturing (e.g., smart motors) or agriculture (e.g., irrigation) to improve various processes and overall efficiency.
- Healthy people and healthy communities: Using ICTs to help address social challenges, help communities adapt to a changing climate, and enable new forms of participatory decision-making.
Canada has already demonstrated leadership in ICTs in a number of ways. From innovative networks for research and knowledge, such as the NEPTUNE sensor network and the CANARIE research and innovation network, to various higher education institutions that specialize in ICT research, Canadians can be proud of the contributions the country has made.
Yet despite these achievements, a number of important challenges exist:
- Canadian business lags behind other peer countries in ICT investment;
- Canada is not ranked highly in terms of ICT penetration and diffusion among individuals; and
- Access to high-quality broadband internet is varied, with inadequate connectivity in some rural areas, among others.
However, many promising practices are already in action in Canada and around the world that can help to address these challenges.
For example, broadband policies in Australia and Germany have set ambitious targeted goals for minimum internet speeds to connect their populations digitally and provide excellent internet access.
In Vienna, Austria, ICTs have been integrated into public transport for user engagement and direct marketing, making the city a prime example of an innovative transit system.
Demonstration projects can also be an instrumental way to harness ICTs. The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at the University of British Columbia provides data and support for ongoing research projects on sustainable building performance, and facilitates the interplay between the building, its sub-systems, and its inhabitants.
To achieve success, connecting technologies together and coordinating policies and systems will be important. An integrated approach to ICT adoption will allow planners and others to build a strong foundation for an innovative and sustainably progressive society.
While some may think of ICTs as gadgets meant to entertain, they are so much more than that. These devices, applications, systems, and platforms have the ability to transform our lives, improving efficiency and communication.
If the potential of ICTs are fully realized, 2025 may come sooner than you think.
*This article previously appeared on the Meeting of the Minds blog.