Crumbling infrastructure hurts the economy, even when it's StatsCan's computers: Don Pittis

Whether leaky water pipes or inefficient energy grids, we know that fixing aging infrastructure is expensive and essential, even when it's largely out of sight. So why do we think we can pinch pennies on Statistics Canada's computers?

Stat agency's technology is as important as sewer repairs for keeping Canada's place in the First World

It's obvious how crumbling roads and bridges can damage a modern economy, but less visible infrastructure, such as aging computer systems, sometimes escape notice. (Don Pittis, CBC News)

Repeatedly packed like a sardine into a stale and sweltering subway car this summer felt like being an extra in a dystopian movie. Blade Runner came to mind or maybe A Clockwork Orange, where the rich sweep by in their limousines while the common people live in a sordid world of crumbling infrastructure and the elevators no longer work.

While people who can afford it are always willing to shell out for the latest cellphone or car, public infrastructure essential to our economy — including the computers that keep Statistics Canada and the Bank of Canada operating efficiently — seem soft targets for cost savings.

Even worse, there is now evidence the ham-handed attempt to economize on the national computer system isn't even working, and that repairing the damaged efficiency and autonomy of two crucial government agencies will cost even more than if Statistics Canada had been allowed to operate its own properly funded computer system.

Strong and secure

The expense and difficulty of building a strong, secure, dependable computer network is something we have witnessed repeatedly across the country, and in the United States, notably in the area of medical information systems.

For Statistics Canada and the central bank, there is the added necessity that market-sensitive and politically delicate data must be seen to be unbiased and released to everyone at the same time.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Vancouver's SkyTrain to announce new infrastructure spending. Plenty of important infrastructure is much less visible than a transit system.

Infrastructure is just a fancy name for the machinery that keeps an economy running smoothly. 

Uncool Canadian

While leaving transit riders to sweat in an unventilated car may not seem crucial to keeping Canada's economy strong, the experience of one high-profile visitor drove home its damaging effect.

Photographs of Hollywood star Kiefer Sutherland riding an overheated subway car during the Toronto International Film Festival were another blow to the reputation of a city Peter Ustinov once called "New York run by the Swiss."
Normally cool Kiefer Sutherland gets stuck on a sweltering Toronto subway, no longer 'run by the Swiss.' (Safiah C/Twitter)

Some might have thought it was good for the film star to see how the other half lives, but the publicity also suggests to potential visitors from around the world that Canada is broken.

Our transit may be relatively safe, but don't expect to arrive fresh.

To any world traveller, it's obvious that good public infrastructure goes hand in hand with a healthy, wealthy society. 

The efficient system Ustinov commented upon in 1987 had been created by public taxation and public savings during Canada's postwar expansion.

Having good infrastructure also creates wealth. 

Costs and benefits

Safe, efficient (and cool) transit makes a city a desirable location for the world's most skilled workers to live. Having excellent roads, ports and airports makes a country a good place for businesses to locate.

But infrastructure is much more than what you can see. Part of what makes Canada a rich functioning democracy is the data Statistics Canada collects, truthfully and independently, without influence or bias from business or government.

In many countries, China for example, even former public officials doubt the truth of economic statistics.

Statistical data moves markets, so having a peek at Statistics Canada's data before they are released is worth real money. In a world plagued by sophisticated hackers, keeping data secure requires sophistication of its own.
Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz is reportedly concerned about whether Statistics Canada's aging technology is up to the task. (Reuters)

Even Canada's chief central banker Stephen Poloz is concerned about the quality of data coming out of the statistics agency, according to the Wall Street Journal. Based on access to information documents, the paper reports Poloz sent an email expressing concern that the Bank of Canada's own estimates could be "at risk due to aging technology" at Statistics Canada. 

"This is like the olden days," said someone on an overheated subway car, prompting the response: "In the olden days the windows opened."

Infrastructure built decades ago at public expense needs constant updating to meet modern demands.

Despite our current economic complaints, Canada is richer than it was when its people and government built much of the infrastructure we depend on for our current wealth.

Vibrant, successful countries don't stay that way without effort. Keeping a country functioning at a high level is like keeping a house from turning into a slum. It requires constant upkeep and repeated dollops of cash. 

Maybe Canadians will decide they can no longer afford such luxuries as air-conditioned subway cars and a reliable Statistics Canada. Maybe it's time to accept a Blade Runner future, and let the machinery run down.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

More analysis by Don Pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.