30 May 2013

On Discovery, and Making Manufacturing

The Ontario Centres of Excellence hosted the annual OCE Discovery conference earlier this week, featuring those involved in the Ontario innovation ecosystem. GBC Research was there showcasing our own centres of excellence: the Food Innovation Research Studio (FIRSt), the Green Building Centre, and our Advanced Prototyping Labs. An opening keynote by Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize, was instructive as much for his points on what he calls "exponential technology" and "crowd sourcing genius" as for the fact that the underlying message was that it is the private sector, not the public, that needs to lead innovation. Public-Private R&D partnerships matter (c.f. P3RD), but it is the private sector that must drive commercialization. This is the essential idea of customer focused innovation. Diamandis talked about how "humans are a linear thinking" but that "technology is exponential," and "The difference between these is either disruptive stress or disruptive opportunity." This differential between stress and opportunity is a pharmakon: a remedy for what ails us, or a further poison to our well of productivity.

Which brings me to making things.

An article in today's Report on Business features a lesson from Germany's manufacturing, and what Canada can learn from this is to re-imagine and rebuild our capacity to make things. Germany shows that making things still pays outlines key points in improving productivity, including partnerships between academic and industry and a sound manufacturing foundation. I've written before about the capacity for making and manufacturing, and the college and polytechnic capacity for building and making makers is a distinguishing feature of our approach to innovation literacy. We will be featuring our Advanced Prototyping Lab capacity at an upcoming industry networking event. Join us to Meet your Maker.

Meet your Maker industry networking event flyer

23 May 2013

FIRSt celebrates First Anniversary

A crowd of industry, students and GBC FIRSt and Chef School faculty and staff were on hand yesterday to celebrate the FIRSt anniversary - one year since the Food Innovation and Research Studio (FIRSt) was launched as one of NSERC's first Technology Access Centres. The event featured FIRSt industry applied research partners showcasing the products developed in the region's leading culinary research studio.

Entrepreneur and George Brown College Graduate Chef Christine Cushing delivered a keynote address that celebrated the work of FIRSt in supporting entrepreneurs and innovators, as she discussed “Bridging the Gap Between Idea and Commercial Product.” Chef Cushing inspired the audience with her stories of taking products from idea to invoice, and spoke about how FIRSt can help re-risk the long road to successful product launch. Also featured was Steve Peters, Executive Director, Alliance of Ontario Food Processors (AOFP), who talked about “The Importance of Food and Beverage Processing in the Ontario Economy.” GBC President Anne Sado and Dean of Hospitality and Culinary Arts Lorraine Trotter talked about the importance of applied research as linked to industry innovation and student experiential learning.

Most inspiring were the partners who displayed their products and stories, accompanied by students in our chef and culinary nutrition management programs. All in all the event was a recipe for successful business innovation, as linked to training the next generation of innovators ad entrepreneurs in the important food and beverage sectors. Please take a moment to learn more about our partners featured at the event:

And so it was timely to read in today's Globe and Mail a piece by economist Todd Hirsch, who offered "A rave review for the restaurant industry" and a good overview of the economic importance of the sector and the transferable skills learned through this important work. It links very well with the Toronto Region Board of Trade's cluster strategy on the food and beverage industries as well. This all bodes well for promoting industry innovation in the region.

Visit the Food Innovation and Research Studio. Follow us on Twitter @GBCFIRSt, and #askGBCFIRSt to learn how we can help support your food product development needs. Check out this video to learn more about FIRSt.

15 May 2013

On science and society

News last week about the retooling of the National Research Council into a Research Technology Organisation (RTO) has drawn some predictable hand wringing about the state of science funding in Canada. News reports are rife with pundits ready to pile on the negative criticism about the change, saying this represents a dire time for Canada and the capacity of our scientists to engage in "pure" research, unsullied by concern over the market or for applied research. I wish to offer some ideologically neutral and agnostic points to refute this point.

First of all, I put "pure" research in scare quotes because it is a bad term to use. It seems to imply that applied research is somehow unpure. I doubt this is what those who use the term intend, but if we accept that language constitutes reality then labels matter. I've made the point before that in the world of "pure" versus Other research, ideas are just another raw resource that we export out (publish) to the detriment of future application (patent, to use a simplistic bifurcation). This is linked to our history as a resource extraction economy.

I much prefer how the OECD's Frascati Manual defines a typology of research: Basic, Applied, and Experimental Development:
Basic research is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundation of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view. Applied research is also original investigation undertaken in order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective. Experimental development is systematic work, drawing on existing knowledge gained from research and/or practical experience, which is directed to producing new materials, products or devices, to installing new processes, systems and services, or to improving substantially those already produced or installed. (2.1.64)
Second, as Alex Usher has pointed out, the delineation between basic and applied research is a relatively recent phenomenon. Usher shows that the arguments around these terms are a false dichotomy that distorts along ideological lines that seem to line up with being either for or against business.

I've made the point many times before: not all research need have commercial or immediate applications. We need a strong discovery pipeline of basic research. But we also need to do two things often ignored in the current debate: turn our best and brightest minds to the problems of today and tomorrow, and make sure that when we do invent something we capitalize on it in Canada, rather than export the idea to buy back the product. Failure of these points will relegate Canada to further innovation deficit.

Here's a story about the McMaster University Biointerfaces Institute that shows that academic units can in fact work with industry. Instructive is the closing quotation from the Institutes's director: "'We’re operating this in a very different way from what a typical graduate student would see in a standard academic lab,' Dr. Brennan says. 'When students leave this place and end up going off into industry they’re going to be incredibly well trained.'"

This is the real point about encouraging greater academic-industry collaboration: creating more meaningful learning and potential for downstream innovation and productivity in the economy - including the economies of science and technology - by engaging students and industry. We must train all students to think about how industry works and about industry innovation. We need the entire population to have innovation literacy.

Even if we ignore for the moment the fact that Canada has the single worst record in the OECD for commercializing IP emerging from our world leading university research, and even if we ignore the fact that we educate more of our population to tertiary levels that any other OECD country yet we lag seriously in innovation and  productivity performance, and that we lead the G8 and are fourth in the world for HERD yet 16th for BERD, we are still left with the need to foster greater firm-level innovation in order to lift our moribund productivity. Actually, let's not ignore these points. Rather, we need to correct these issues. Orienting the NRC to aiding businesses to conduct more and better R&D in Canada is a good thing for the country. Encouraging our scientists, humanists and engineers to orient themselves to solving the problems of the day is a good thing. For when we engage all students in innovation - from basic to applied research and experimental development - we foster innovation literacy across the entire economy (science, technology, commerce) while we help to create made in Canada innovation. The transition of the NRC to an RTO is a positive step forward in helping Canada realize our S&T potential and the potential of our firms to be more than just a branch plant economy.

10 May 2013

Polytechnics Canada promotes education, innovation for the specialist economy

The annual Polytechnics Canada conference was convened this week at the waterfront campus of George Brown College, and featured some excellent and provoking ideas and discussion around the polytechnic model of education.The Honourable Brad Duguid, Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Government of Ontario opened the day by welcoming the delegates and emphasizing the importance of how the applied education we specialize in delivering is highly valued by employers and the province.

Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates then convened a panel of international experts to kick off the discussion about trends in polytechnic education and applied research. The panel featured Dr. Thomas Deissinger, Business & Economics Education Chair at University of Konstanz, Germany, Dr. Vuokko Kohtamaki, Senior Researcher at Tampere University of Technology, Finland, and Dr. James Jacobs, President of Macomb Community College, U.S.A. We learned much about the European system that fosters greater mobility of highly qualified and skilled personnel (as enabled through pan-EU Bologna education approach), and how Macomb Community College is approaching education in an era of declining state support, raising questions about how education can enable transformation and transfer: of credits, skills and knowledge. The EU approach to fostering better linkages and credit transfer among institutions is coupled with a more advanced approach to credentials, including and especially apprenticeships, that are linked to industry and labour market needs. This is an important point. In Germany for example, industry invests to a very large degree in skills training, both formal and informal. And applied research in Finland and Germany is linked explicitly to local and regional economic development. These are seen as highly positive outcomes. Our own focus on education and applied research as linked to regional social and economic development is on very solid footing here. Our capacity as a country to engage in credit transfer and mobility however, are not so solid. There is work to be done to make of Canada a truly systemized system.

This point was picked up by keynote speaker Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan. Dr Coates spoke about the "specialist economy" wherein skills and knowledge needed for specific occupations are increasingly the norm as an outcome of education. (Coincidentally, today's Globe and Mail features a story on specialization in nursing.) Education in the specialist economy is more episodic, linked to labour market needs, meaning that education providers will need to adapt to providing more timely and modular approaches to credentials. This approach to education is very thoughtfully presented by former BCIT president Don Wright, in a discussion paper on the future of the institution. Of particular note in this paper is Wright's point that the role of polytechnic education is to build human capital, not filter it. This notion of broadly building society's capacity to ensure a broadly based educated population by increasing credential laddering, transfer and outcomes linked to social and economic need is a hallmark of polytechnics. Indeed, Coates said that many who go to university do so as a default or reflex. We would do well to emulate European models where polytechnic education is not seen as second to a university education. The reality is that we need a range of education and credential offerings that reflect, promote and provide for a range of occupations coupled with citizen engagement. 

The afternoon featured a panel discussion on Green Building Panel|Building Green: Applied Research & Skills Training for the Green Building Sector. Nancy Sherman, Dean of Construction & Engineering Technologies, George Brown College, Ted Maulucci, CIO, Tridel, David Silburn, Research Associate, SAIT Polytechnic, Jennie Moore, Director of Sustainable Development & Environment Stewardship, BCIT, and Mark Hoddenbagh, Director of Applied Research, Algonquin discussed the specifics around "How members of Polytechnics Canada produce talent and innovation for the green construction sector, a key industrial strength of our membership." Nancy Sherman focused on the education and applied research approach of our Green Building Centre, funded by FedDev Ontario, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, NSERC, and our industry partners.

Rick Huijbregts, Vice President for Industry and Business Transformation, Smart + Connected Communities, Cisco Canada, concluded the speakers at the evening reception with an excellent overview of Cisco's approach to fostering skills and knowledge through the Cisco Academy (including at George Brown College). The linking of industry need to skills and educational outcomes is necessary, and as we see from the international experience, a good way to orient the education system to ensure we have a well-aligned supply and demand in the labour market. Of course we want to ensure that our citizens are broadly educated; there are non-industry specific outcomes that we want to encourage, such as innovation and entrepreneurship, critical thinking and democratic engagement.

07 May 2013

NRC now a Research and Technology Organization

It is somewhat fitting that on the eve of the Polytechnics Canada annual conference the Honourable Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, has announced that the National Research Council of Canada is now a Research and Technology Organization (RTO). A recommendation of the Jenkins panel, the transformation of the NRC to a RTO represents a key step forward for Canada. With the NRC focused on fostering industry innovation, the country has gained an important new avenue for firms to tap into the world leading talent, facilities and equipment that are useful for commercialization and innovation activities. I look forward to learning more, and to referring industry to the NRC labs, who now form an integral component in the business innovation ecosystem in Canada.