Diverse Topics, Common Themes – What We Observed in the Work of the Participants
Over the past 10 months, the Canada Beyond 150 teams worked separately most of the time, and with different stakeholders and partners. Despite this, some common themes emerge from their work, which could reveal something about our times, or at least about how new public servants view the challenges ahead.
Surviving disruption and thriving in a transformed economy
Participants’ foresight work suggested that emerging technologies will transform the economy and challenge the relevance of existing government social supports. For example, both the Capital and Debt and the Future of Work teams saw the emergence of a ‘gig economy’ in which workers perform tasks instead of being employed in jobs. They examined how this may combine with an ‘access economy’ where individuals pay to use goods such as housing and transportation, rather than own them (think AirBnB and Uber models for almost everything). In short, participants saw a Canadian economy in the course of major transition.
These changes may help Canadians thrive by offering more flexible work arrangements, opportunities for entrepreneurs, lower debt loads from large purchases, and a reduced environmental footprint. On the other hand, there is a risk that Canadians who are already struggling will be further disadvantaged, unable to find safe and stable employment, left out of a sharing economy, and ineligible for some government benefits and supports in their current design. They also saw that, by sidestepping the employment relationship, a new breed of businesses could elude policies and regulations designed in the 20th century aimed at ensuring safe and fair economic participation. Participants recognized that diverse groups would be affected differently.
Trust and connection
Several teams were concerned with themes of trust and connection. For example, the Reconciliation group examined the consequences of broken trust due to non-respect for Indigenous rights. They learned about traumatic disconnections caused by colonial policies and institutions such as residential schools. Working with an Elder, they emphasized the need for deeper connections to land, community, traditions, and our histories. They focused on official and Indigenous languages, and considered how language is a powerful source of connection across time.
The Sustainable Development team looked at trust and connection from another angle. They envisioned a world in which interconnected sensors, blockchain, and artificial intelligence are tools to build confidence in a sustainability score for consumer products. Technology would enable greater trust, allowing consumers to make purchasing decisions that reflect sustainability values throughout the entire supply chain. Participants saw this as a step towards a circular economy in which production and consumption can serve human needs within the carrying capacity of the planet.
A number of teams also noted that digital technologies could undermine social trust and connection. The Wellbeing team found that digital technologies may be increasing isolation and loneliness in youth. The participants working on Open and Transparent Government foresaw that a poorly executed transition to automated decisions could make government less intelligible and reproduce bias, undermining trust. That team also considered an emerging digital divide, in which online platforms foster echo chambers and promote conflict. The same network technologies that were heralded as democratizing knowledge at the turn of the century now also carry disinformation campaigns and fake news. Participants emphasized that this could undermine connection among Canadians, erode public trust, and threaten social cohesion.
A shared insight
A shared insight seems to have animated the teams. In order to thrive in the emerging,
technologically-driven economic transition, Canadians will need the flexibility, resilience, healing and capacities that are nurtured by relationships and connection in real life. This will call on our connections to community, family, personal relationships, respectful workplaces, and inclusive institutions that value diversity.
In their reports and presentations, the participants drew attention to forces that they saw as corroding human connection and development –in continuing patterns of exclusion and oppression, or in the ways that our uses of technology isolate and divide us. They also looked for opportunities for government to help Canadians harness the forces of economic change so that they support the human development on which successful transition will depend.
One take on Canada Beyond 150 is that participants had an experience of what the public service will need to navigate in coming years. Their insights and proposals could be valuable signals as the public service carries this discussion forward.