We are the “last [generation] that can end climate change”, urged former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The world has made grand leaps in tech, especially in the past year, and it’s crucial to bring this momentum over to climate action.
Canada is keen to green with tech. It is using AI to prepare infrastructure for electric vehicles and speed up clean energy research. “We’re taking advantage of the strides we’ve made in digital service delivery to examine how we can accelerate climate action,” says Joyce Murray, Canada’s Minister of Digital Government.
She shares how tech is enabling sustainable growth in the country, and her vision for post-Covid digital public services.
Keeping it green
AI, machine learning and “the enormous data pools” that governments are amassing are useful tools for reducing global CO2 emissions, Murray says.
Opportunities are plenty. “There are over 150 environmental applications of artificial intelligence in agriculture, energy, transport, and water,” she notes. These could save up to 4 per cent of global CO2 emissions by 2030.
One of these applications has found its way into Canada’s national science labs. The country is exploring using AI to produce chemical substances that accelerate the production of clean energy, such as hydrogen.
Such substances typically take up to 20 years to enter the market. With an issue as pressing as climate change, this is time the world can’t afford. Machine learning algorithms can predict optimal conditions for producing these new materials and shorten research timelines.
The government is also using big data and AI to prepare the country’s infrastructure for electric vehicles, says Murray. It looks into environmental factors and drivers’ social behaviour to forecast needs for charging infrastructure, energy generation and future grid extensions, Natural Resources Canada wrote.
A “platform model” for government
Tech will underlie Canada’s strategy against another global crisis: the pandemic. The government will focus on making public services accessible and user-friendly, Murray says.
Change starts from within. The government is building a “digital toolkit” for its agencies. Federal departments can use the same set of tools to provide “seamless, consistent service” and cut down on repeated work, she says.
Other countries have used the same approach. Singapore, for one, developed a Tech Stack that agencies can use to build new services. This makes rolling out new public services much quicker, and data exchange across ministries easier, Singapore’s GovTech wrote.
This is part of Murray’s strategy to move towards a “platform model” for government. Public service often involves overlapping work. This model allows agencies to work closely together to meet citizen needs, rather than delineating rigid job scopes.
This approach has condensed the time taken for new services from months to weeks. The Canadian government’s email and text notifications tool, GC Notify, is one example. It provides templates for officials to send updates to citizens quickly and cheaply, and currently serves 23 departments.
This open source tool was the product of cross-department efforts, led by the Canadian Digital Service. “We worked outside of our traditional silos, collaborated across departments, and proved to ourselves we can work quickly and effectively,” Murray says.
“This was a welcome departure from the regular processes of the public service but it must become the standard, not the exception,” she adds.
As public services go digital, Murray wants to make sure they remain inclusive. “Digital services should never be the only way that someone can access a service,” she says.
The government will work to expand services for rural and non tech-savvy communities. For instance, it launched the Service Canada Outreach Support Centre in April 2020. Citizens without computers or internet access could dial a toll-free number to find out how to receive government support in the pandemic.
“We will continue to adapt to the needs of Canadians throughout the pandemic, ensuring that everyone can access the services where they need,” she shares.
As easy as 1, 2, 3, 4
Canada is set to launch a new Digital Strategy in the coming weeks, Murray tells GovInsider. “We are a government that is still functioning on systems built for an analogue world,” she says. The Digital Strategy will address four main digital challenges facing the government.
The first is to simplify public services. “Currently, there are many standalone systems and processes across government departments that don’t work together,” she says.
The government will address this by building a national digital ID to secure all online public services. It will also swap thousands of inconvenient PDF forms for mobile-friendly and secure web forms.
Second, Canada will help its agencies coordinate with one another more effectively. It can be as simple as getting agencies to use the same digital tools. All Canadian civil servants use Microsoft Office 365 tools, which enable them to communicate and share files securely.
With easy operable tools, public servants can start exploring more advanced tech such as AI, since they don’t have to worry about the basics, former CIO of Shared Services Canada Liz McKeown told GovInsider.
The third step is to build up tech talent in the public service. The government is partnering with the private sector and academia to fill digital skills gaps in its officials, Murray shares.
Finally, the government will upgrade its IT systems so they can keep up with the pace of services that people need, she says.
Canada’s digital government will prioritise cutting inflexibility and inefficiency. This approach will lay a firm foundation for tackling bigger issues, including climate change, Murray believes.
Image from Joyce Murray’s Facebook page.