How to strengthen Canada’s innovation performance

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One hundred years ago, Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie took on Vimy Ridge, a challenge that had befuddled the Allies for many months during the First World War. His analysis, planning and rehearsals led to a great Canadian victory. A century later, the battle for Canada is to capture the high ground of innovation performance. It will take the same kind of diligent and focused effort.

Sustaining an economy that produces sufficient national wealth to meet public expectations and entitlements is a critical challenge for governments everywhere. Expanding wealth and prosperity for Canadian citizens requires a research and innovation system that provides technologies and processes appropriate to national needs and that can adapt and respond to external pressures and changes in a timely manner. And it needs a business culture that has the motivation to apply them.

Canada has a long history as an innovative and entrepreneurial country, reflected by successes such as vaccines, telecommunications, energy and aerospace. But in recent decades, things have not gone so well for Canada and we find ourselves well down the list in international rankings of innovativeness and competitiveness. Governments of all stripes have addressed this problem for many years, but Canadian innovation performance continues to lag global leaders.

I recently undertook a comparative analysis of 16 economies, including Canada, and their research and innovation systems – the work included big and small, established and emerging, burgeoning and struggling. Relative to our global competitors, what are Canada’s innovation shortcomings?

1. Public policy in Canada treats innovation as the logical result of a discovery-based linear process. While discovery is certainly important, innovation is actually a very complex and messy process, and most innovation, generally 95 per cent or more, is incremental and evolutionary – built around steady improvement and progression.

2. Public funding is not well matched to innovation-system needs and priorities exaggerating deficiencies and weaknesses in critical elements of the innovation system.

3. Canada’s research and innovation system is, at best, only weakly aligned with critical Canadian issues, needs and opportunities.

4. We do not take full advantage of the significant industrial-scale technology development infrastructure available in Canadian research and technology organizations (RTOs).

5. In Canada, our innovation opportunities are frequently linked to industrial value chains, but there are only a very small number of large Canadian-based global industrial players. The absence of a large number of Canadian-based global multinationals makes it much harder for Canadian innovators to link to global value chains through domestic channels. They are more likely to have to go global, license or sell out earlier than their international competitors. This is a long-standing issue that has been exacerbated by globalization.

6. The work force has limited practical knowledge, skills and experience related to the practice of technological innovation, and in particular the development, application and commercialization of technologies, products, processes, and systems.

So what should we do? Careful study of our innovation challenges and years of experience with Canada’s leading research and technology organizations have identified three key initiatives to supplement other actions already under way.

First, we need better balance in our public investments. An overemphasis on curiosity, serendipity and hope is like tying our economic future to a lottery. We’ll certainly all be happy if we are lucky enough to win big, but the statistics tell us we’ll most likely be broke before we do. By routinely building up one element at the expense of the other elements, we are simply reinforcing the inadequacies of an already skewed system, while increasing expectations for improved results.

Second, Canada has to increase the uptake and application of innovation in Canada by Canadians by providing some high-level direction, as is the case in most of the higher-performing countries.

Simply put, innovators are more likely to be successful when there is a long-term, high-level game plan that helps guide innovative efforts and initiatives to increase their potential for the uptake and application. This is not about government picking winners, but it is about government planting a stake in the ground that people can steer toward.

Fortunately, most of the near-industrial-scale public technology-development infrastructure in Canada is reasonably well aligned with Canadian issues and needs; is oriented toward markets, outcomes and solutions; and can help users at pretty much every stage of the innovation process.

These RTOs, through their credibility and networks, can serve as multinational proxies for Canadian innovators by helping to bring components, subsystems, and systems together in a form that meets the needs of global value chains and increases the growth potential for Canadian innovative companies. Government needs to routinely renew, support and reinforce this Canadian infrastructure, and industry should use it.

Thirdly, and perhaps most important of all, we need to upgrade and reinforce innovation skills and build a stronger culture of innovation in Canada by offering experiential training and professional development for research and innovation leaders, managers, researchers, academics and related workers in key areas of study associated with innovation, in a Canadian context.

Commitment and dedication in addressing these factors will help Canada become a more successful global innovation player. By doing so, we will improve Canada’s innovation performance. And ultimately, as with Lt.-Gen.Currie, we will have positioned ourselves to capture the high ground of innovation leadership.

John McDougall is president of Dalcor Innoventures Ltd., and the former president of the National Research Council.

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