27 February 2012

Mapping Innovation: Place Matters to Productivity

MaRS has put out a great resource showing the region's start-ups. Startup City features a visual of Toronto's start-ups and offers a glimpse of the innovation ecosystem cohering around the Greater Toronto Area. The map offers a good correlate to TRRA's Innovation Jobs report.

The relationship of place and innovation and innovation capacity is a good topic to delve into more deeply. The March issue of Wired (not yet online) has a great short article called "Cultivating Genius" by Jonah Lehrer that shows historical evidence of innovation emerging from distinct geographies. He makes the point that the pace of innovation can be taught and managed by bringing rigour to the processes that enable it (a point made by Roger Martin as well, including at this event). Lehrer's point is that the US currently does this, only with athletes. If we were to focus the kind of energy we do on creating world class athletes and apply this to science and engineering, we would create the conditions similar to other epochs in history noted for the emergence of both disruptive and incremental innovations. It's a great premise.

To paraphrase Roger Martin, innovation literacy can be taught. And the link to regional innovation should be pursued as one plank of an innovation policy closely linked to economic development. Bert van den Berg, NSERC's Director of Knowledge & Technology Transfer, recently sent me a link to the following article which provide for excellent reading on this topic. Innovation in Cities and Innovation by Cities by Robert Atkinson outlines the view that place matters when it comes to innovation.

By way of example, the GBC Food Innovation Research Studio (FIRSt) works with others across the Greater Toronto Area serving the food innovation needs of local industry. There are 25000 SMEs within 80KM of GBC FIRSt working in the food product development area. The sector contributes over $84B annually to the Ontario economy (half of this in the Toronto area), employs 30% more people than the auto industry, employs 1 in 13 people in Canada, and is 9% of Canadian GDP (to put that into perspective, oil, gas and mining combined are 4.5% of GDP). The point here is that innovation in the food industry is very much linked to locale, as evidenced by the amount of companies and money flowing in the GTA.We link the education and training of graduates in this area closely with all sectors of the industry. Ensuring these graduates possess innovation literacy acquired through applied research is one way we can ensure that the innovation capacity of the region will continue to develop. 

And this takes us back to mapping innovation. Connecting companies to each other and to innovation support services such as those offered by colleges, polytechnics and universities is one way to map the innovation ecosystem and orient the region to increased innovation capacity. Key here is the ecosystem approach: everything is interdependent, related, complementary. The Ontario Network of Excellence, CONII, OCE, MaRS Innovation are all ecosystem actors supporting and sustaining the emergence of an innovation ecosystem. It will only work to the extent that we know and are known to each other. I've often said all of us agents of the innovation system function like LavaLife, helping to understand industry innovation needs and putting them together with the right supports. The rise of concepts such as open and participatory and people-centred innovation, or research clusters (virtual and proximate) are part of the emergence of place as the way to understand how to enact innovation for greater social and economic productivity.All of this is predicated on industry adopting innovation as a business strategy and understanding the links between innovation skills and productivity. 

George Brown College last year conducted a GTA Employer Survey in which local employers of college and university graduates were asked to state the skill or ability they find to be the most important. We found that the link between innovation skills & productivity may not be fully recognized yet, but this link is fundamental to an innovation economy. We continue to do more work in this area in order to map out the future for essential skills for the innovation economy.

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