When Vivek Kundra started working in the White House in 2009, President Barack Obama was fighting “tooth-and-nail” to keep his BlackBerry.
Seven years later, the once iconic Canadian-made smartphone has been relegated to an amusing anecdote for the United States’ inaugural Chief Information Officer — and an example of the difficulties governments have keeping up with technology.
Kundra, who managed an $80-billion information technology portfolio for the president, was in Ottawa during election week urging Canadian officials who oversee roughly $6 billion in similar spending to stay apace.
“Change is the only constant. Just because you have one company that has done well today doesn’t mean it’s going to reign supreme,” he said in an interview.
“You have to be able to put innovation at the centre of your government policy. Because the future is going to belong to those countries that are constantly innovating. Canada has done it before, and can do it again.”
Kundra laid out his prescription for digital transformation in the capital as the federal Liberals celebrated their resounding election victory.
He said it’s an exciting time for Canada because a fresh government could initiate an era of technology-driven innovation that’s essential to creating jobs and keeping the country competitive.
“You’ve just had an amazing election, and you have a leader who has in front of him the opportunity,” said Kundra, who resigned from the White House in 2011 and is now executive vice-president for the Silicon Valley-based cloud computing firm Salesforce.
Near the end of the 11-week election campaign, several prominent technology entrepreneurs voiced frustration that no political party had outlined a vision for their industry.
However, the Liberals ultimately committed $200 million annually for three years to help tech startups grow. They also promised $100 million a year toward an industrial research-assistance program, which encourages innovation in small- and medium-sized businesses.
While campaigning, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau pointed out that Canada has fallen to 22nd place for innovation among leading countries, according to a report from the Geneva-based World Economic Forum.
Kundra said countries, including Canada, will fall behind without a policy framework that embraces the future.
He encouraged the federal government to examine technology expenditures, noting that within his first six months at the White House he implemented a crackdown on wasteful spending that saved the U.S. government $3 billion.
“Are you spending that capital in the old world — on mainframes and mini-computers?” he asked. “Or are you spending that capital to create jobs of the future around data science and cloud and social and mobile?”
Other high-tech initiatives the government should consider include designing policies to attract talent and venture capital and investing in “intelligent infrastructure” for cities, such as smart grids, he suggested.
The day after the federal election, the country’s largest high-tech association released a proposed agenda for the new government, urging a focus toward improving Canada’s low innovation and competitiveness rankings.
The Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance issued specific recommendations ranging from consolidating ministries for a new “minister of science, technology and business innovation” to committing 10 per cent of government procurement spending to startups.
“We need 21st century leadership for improving Canada’s business innovation performance and this must begin at the political level,” said CEO John Reid in a release. “Now is the time to pivot to the future.”
Follow @TamsynBurgmann on Twitter