Editor's View

Seeking Energy-ICT Synergy

 

It is not unusual for other countries to leverage their strengths—and even weaknesses—to grow their national economies, increase productivity and create export opportunities.

The United States has used its massive spending on military research and development to create or advance spinoff products and industries—your smartphone was made possible by some of them, including global positioning systems, digital photography and the Internet.

Germany and China have become major players in renewable power production industries—solar and wind—due in part to leveraging what would otherwise be seen as a weakness: their insufficient natural resource endowments to power their industrial economies.

Canada has done much to capitalize on its rich trove of energy resources, from oil and gas to hydroelectric to nuclear. But as we rush to develop and export our energy resources, we might want to consider if we are leveraging this bounty to the best advantage. Is there opportunity to do more than export a largely raw resource, or could we use the resource to our advantage to pursue other value-added opportunities?

The Canadian oil and gas sector is by necessity a high-tech industry as the resource becomes harder to find and develop, but to a large degree it has relied on technologies developed elsewhere, often adapted to Canadian circumstances and needs.

At the same time, Canada ranks relatively high in information and communications technologies. Geography has helped make us leaders in communications technology for decades, while our highly educated workforce has helped to ensure we have maintained a leadership role in information technology in areas such as communications infrastructure, banking and finance, and smartphone development, as one-time leading innovation giants Nortel Networks Corporation and BlackBerry Limited have shown.

But until now, there has been little concerted effort to pull together our information and communications technology (ICT) community, with a centre of gravity more closely associated with southern Ontario, and the oil and gas sector, centred mainly in western Canada. There are some, but not many, instances of Ontario software and IT companies driving innovation in the oilpatch, while the oilpatch has been more likely to source companies in Texas or Oklahoma for its high-tech needs than in central Canada.

There is, of course, no need for our ICT community to reinvent the wheel in an attempt to create homegrown versions of existing technologies for the oilpatch. But where new ICT needs are identified, or where expertise exists that has never been expressly applied to the specific needs of the oilpatch and could meaningfully increase performance and efficiency, it behooves both industries to investigate synergistic opportunities where they may exist to the benefit of both.

That’s where the upcoming Canada 3.0 conference discussed in our feature story, “Information Across The Nation,” comes in. Conference organizers hope to bring together the right people from both sides to assess where synergies can happen and how to bring them about over the next several years.

Often, merely understanding the particular ICT needs of a company (like an oil producer) or the rapidly advancing capabilities of another company (like a smartphone app developer), can lead to surprisingly positive results. And there is no shortage of areas where ICT innovation could benefit energy producers, from remote communications and environmental monitoring to development of the digital oilfield and the ongoing advancement in the recording, sorting and use of reams of data—so-called Big Data.

There are, of course, other barriers besides a lack of open lines of communication and information sharing—such as the very real challenge of financing start-up to medium-sized companies with great ideas—that stand in the way of increased collaboration. And there are efforts underway to address these challenges as well. But as seen by the oilsands sector in recent efforts to share information on advancing technology development to reduce the environmental footprint, such efforts can pay off in relatively short order for all companies involved.

Time will tell whether the two sectors with very different mindsets can come together to leverage the strength of each to build a stronger Canadian economy and develop a leading energy-ICT sector, which one day could become a major export opportunity. But certainly the potential exists, and efforts such as those of Canada 3.0 are a step in the right direction to take us there.

 

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