Justin Trudeau's government has made innovation its favourite buzzword, promising to pour government money into developing new skills, new technologies and new industries. But one of the smallest of those programs, unveiled Wednesday, is likely to prove the most effective.
It's a $50-million program to teach school-age kids coding – basic computer programming. It's simple, concrete and addresses, in a modest way, the critical gap in all those new-economy promises we hear from politicians: the basic education it requires.
There's a disconnect between the federal Liberals' rhetoric and the provinces. In Ottawa, the Liberals keep talking about innovation and skills, but that has to include grade school education, and it is the provinces that run schools.
Education budgets are tight, and they tend to be focused more on class sizes, contracts and school buses, rather than adding to the curriculum. The new federal program will offer to supply coding teachers and classes for school-age kids, in kindergarten to Grade 12.
"We will create an enormous amount of supply," said federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains. "We already know there's a lot of demand."
Mr. Bains has already unveiled a $950-million "superclusters" initiative aimed at connecting tech research and industry in hothouses that fuel economic growth. It's a bet on the hope that if government can help foster even a weak imitation of a new Silicon Valley in some niche, it will be well worth the risk. The federal budget issued in March devoted $125-million to a Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.
But there's a tricky thing about any so-called innovation policy. It's hard to define the spark that creates innovation that fuels economic growth, let alone legislate for it. You can gamble on ways to create an industrial environment where innovation might flourish, but even if you get that right, it's still a gamble.
One repeatedly proven way to encourage an innovative economy, however, is through skills. Right now, the gap is coding. Young people coming out of university, even those studying math, science and finance, find they need to be able to code to get the good jobs. Mr. Bains notes that shift in skills demand is happening faster than most people realize: "Every company is now a technology company," he said.
If you are trying to boost the economy, a widespread upgrade in education and skills that fit growing needs is proven to be effective. And having a generation with more fluency in the digital skills that will be required to develop new technology is a good way to improve the odds the economy will see more innovation.
There are coding or computer science classes in many high schools, but it's a hodgepodge system. At the moment, British Columbia and Nova Scotia have plans to put coding into the curriculum for younger students. That's it.
And it's becoming clear that kids will need to be exposed to coding earlier, not so they can use the specific coding skills in their work when they grow up, but so they have a better chance of becoming fluent in that kind of thinking. "That's where we need to start younger," said Melissa Sariffodeen, the CEO of an organization called Ladies Learning Code, which offers coding courses and camps to women and youth.
Of course, there are already kids taking coding classes and coding camps, like the ones offered by Ladies Learning Code. The trick is to make it more widespread. Ottawa can't put it into the school curriculum, so this program will just put more coding courses on the market. It will provide $50-million to non-profit organizations, with the goal of providing courses to 500,000 kids, plus training some teachers.
That won't cover enough. The money amounts to about $10 for each school-age child in Canada, and even if the program does reach 500,000 kids, that's just 1 in 10. But it might just help nudge the provinces to make coding common in schools. And that could be the biggest bargain that a government trying to build an innovation policy can find.