12 March 2010

Canada's innovation deficit

An article in today's Globe and Mail outlines the well worn path of Canada's innovation deficit. Kevin Lynch calls for increased business investment in R&D, which as I've written about before is very low compared to our higher education R&D spending. His point about the need to focus on commercialization and to foster R&D in specific sectors resonates with the Science and Technology Strategy and Canada's need to get away from a "business as usual" approach to innovation and to support "Stronger research collaborations between business and publicly funded research." He points out that "Sweden and Finland have much to teach us. Consideration could be given to targeting a portion of new government R&D funding to research that helps Canada solve specific challenges." I also support his assertion that "A broader public dialogue is essential. We need to make the question “What would it take for Canada to be an innovative economy for the 21st century?” part of our public narrative – partly because our innovation deficit is a threat to our competitiveness and living standards, and partly because we can be a world leader in innovation. We should aspire to be a nation of innovators. We should rebrand Canada as technologically savvy, entrepreneurial and creative."

Lynch does not mention the complementary R&D role that colleges and polytechnics are increasingly playing in the national innovation system. But his call for a dialogue on the innovation economy reflects our focus on education that supports what we call innovation literacy - creativity, problem solving and entrepreneurial thinking that adds value to product and process development.

As I noted in my response to Budget 2010, the federal government is continuing its support of the applied research and experimental development aspect of the R&D continuum. GBC's press release outlines in more detail how Budget 2010 is supporting the commercialization side of things, which will foster greater social and economic productivity in the long term.


ed bernacki the idea factory said...

I am a Canadian who just spoke at an innovation conference in Australia. www.hargraves.com
It is hard to describe the differences in the innovation conversation between the two countries - Australia has one and Canada basically does not have a sophisticated conversation on innovation. It is also interesting to note that Australia never went into a recession this past year. The unemployment rate in the Melbourne area is in the 5 percent range.
A few points:

While prompting Canadian businesses to invest more in R&D would be good, it is not enough. I believe we must focus on building our capacity to innovate in all aspects our businesses and in all sectors: it is naïve to focus only on technology and the traditional product development concepts. What about services? What about agricultural? What about strategies to prompt the development of higher value strategies in all sectors?

We must great expand our understanding of the cliché “commercialization”. This is a business problem both in terms of the lack of desire and skill to take Canadian ideas and shape them into products and services which can be sold to the world. What drives the lack of commercialization? I see it as a lack of thinking, strategies and investment going into product development, distribution, international insight, and entrepreneurship in general. When I speak overseas, I ask people if they can identify a Canadian product. Most people can not name a single Canadian product. That is shameful for a country of 34 million.

What is our national strategy for adding value? No idea. I also work in New Zealand. It focused on design and offers govt consulting services to business to prompt them to think more innovatively about design: www.betterbydesign.org.nz The point is to shape higher value products and services.

Focus on Agriculture – in terms of product development, marketing and distribution. This should be a major focus for innovation in Canada. We should be a food producer for the world. Keep in mind that we sell living cows to the USA as we can not process them. What about branding, packaging and product development of beef? Go to any grocery store and notice NZ Spring Lamb (www.nzlamb.ca). This too is innovation – in terms of distribution channels, product development and marketing. The problem seems to be that our private sector agriculture producers and the marketing boards seem to show little innovation. We must shift from commodity thinking.

Many of the participants in the innovation conference I spoke are from government. Many of these departments have innovation strategies and innovation managers. We must greatly expand our understanding of “innovation”. It is not about technology. All service organizations need innovation strategies. All businesses need to focus on these concepts to ensure efficiency, effectiveness and productivity.

To ensure George Brown walks it own talk about innovation, I think it is appropriate to ask, “what are you doing to ensure that GB offers high quality innovative services to your stakeholders?” Do you have an innovation strategy? I hope so. As a service organization, your offerings and management structures need to be innovative to deliver value.
Ed Bernacki

Robert Luke said...

Ed - these are good points. I concur with your assertion on design as well, and in fact have made this point in the past. The Science and Technology Innovation Council has also mentioned this in their last report, and it appears in Budget 2010. And you are quite right that we need a culture change. Canadians are risk averse, and fostering what we call innovation literacy is one way to create a more entrepreneurial and creative culture. This will, of course, take time.