22 December 2010

Looking back, Looking ahead: Investing in Applied Research

Properly speaking a post so titled should come in January, but as we close out the year I thought it would be useful to summarize some key points from the past year, but more importantly, what I see as some key themes that I will be focusing on in the year ahead.

The past year has been a good one for applied research, for polytechnics, and for colleges engaged in instigating industry innovation. The Federal R&D Review is one of the more significant policy opportunities that emerged, with its focus on business innovation and what public policy measures can be taken to foster this. There can be no debate that we need to increase productivity and our national capacity to innovate. Polytechnics and colleges involved in industry applied research are working toward this and have made strong gains in the past year. Government sponsorship is helping us to help industry innovate. The increased funding we have received is not part of a zero sum game that pits colleges, polytechnics and universities against one another. The internecine reflex that encourages such thinking prevents us from moving forward.

For the year ahead I have three themes:

  1. The diffusion of innovation: to my point above, our ability to be responsive to the innovation and productivity challenges that beset us is contingent on complementarity and cooperation. This doesn't mean less of a focus on excellence. Rather, it means focusing on excellence while promoting a national, participatory and unified perspective on fostering greater business innovation. The intentional application of applied research and innovation services to industry needs and contexts means we focus less on discovery, and more on the design and diffusion of incremental innovation. Our focus is not on us, but on what we can do downstream by enabling industry innovation.
  2. People-centred innovation is a grounded way to promote participatory innovation - our way of engaging students, faculty and our partners, using the principles of human-centred design. This approach, contiguous with open innovation, fosters innovation literacy in our graduates while being focused on the downstream results of our work, as noted above, while being mindful of stakeholder needs. This is an outside-in, versus an inside-out approach, meaning we need to adopt the perspective of those we are working with and for. This is a basic precept of participatory design that lets us see our responsibility (to improving innovation and productivity for example) against any perceived right (to obtain funding for research). People-centred innovation acknowledges that innovation is a social activity.
  3. Using our imagination. It is time to modernize the Canadian postsecondary environment and create a national innovation system that clearly articulates universities, polytechnics and colleges. This new national system will be receptive to industry engagement, and will foster innovation literacy at all levels of HQSP. Doing this requires a collective will to imagine the future where we can compete in the global innovation economy. To do this we need to take research from ideas to invoice: we must craft an Innovation Policy that encourages firms to invest in R&D and provides an "any point of contact" entry to link industry with our postsecondary institutions (PSIs). Doing so will achieve a threefold ROI:
    • A Return on Interest from basic research that provokes thought and ideas, leading to disruptive innovations through long term research investment;
    • A Return on Innovation from applied research that increases industry R&D spending and our collective capacity to innovate, leading to improved productivity; and
    • A Return on Investment from experimental development through the creation of new products and processes and through the training of students, who enter the workforce ready to innovate.
 All of us implicated in the Canadian innovation system have a responsibility - a response-ability - to step up and continue to work together with each other and other players in the system. We need to think past the immediate and see the longer term goals of improving social and economic prosperity. In these tumultuous and kinetic times, our productivity challenges demand this of us.

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