Tag Archives: Innovation

Choosing our words wisely

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It is one of those words that, through its overuse by bureaucrats, politicians and other members of the snake-charming family, loses its meaning in the company of rational men and women. That’s precisely why it is so easily misunderstood.

Still, we are informed, there can be no higher road on which to travel, no finer boulevard on which to set forth than the path of innovation. Wisdom’s lengthy annals are replete with expert advice on the subject.

“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd,” said Winston Churchill. “Without innovation, it is a corpse.”

Naturally, Bill Gates would concur. “I believe in innovation,” he once opined. “The way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.”

On the other hand, Steve Jobs argued that “innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

At the same time, he added, “innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem.”

Meanwhile, America’s very own Commander and Chief Innovator, Barack Obama, put it this way: “Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.”

Clever, to be sure. But I wonder whether we are any closer for having perused the witticisms to understanding what innovation really means.

Certainly, the dictionary is of no help. One of them defines the word as simply “the act of introducing something new; something newly introduced.”

Other terms, similar in meaning, include: invention, excogitation, conception, design, creative thinking, creativeness, creativity, concoction, and contrivance.

Then again, innovation can also mean change, revolution, departure, transformation, and upheaval.

In fact, it may just be that real innovation has as much to do with the tearing down of things than with their building up; that true innovation is not so much an act of generosity than it is one of brutal, protean self-expression.

Innovation is dangerous, and that scares bureaucrats, politicians and other members of the snake-charming family, who dress it up in its Sunday finest and park it in the parlor when gentlemen entrepreneurs come calling for government “investments”.

But, on the subject of innovation, at least one famous private enterpriser knows what he’s talking about. Here’s what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told a gathering of his assorted acolytes in October:

“Without a willingness to fail, you cannot innovate because most innovations won’t work. . .I cannot overstate how important (the) incremental innovation is. But for the big innovation, you have to be willing to fail. Every startup company faces that. Even big companies, like Boeing building the 787, face this. . .Use the critics as a mirror and ask if they are right. If they are right, then you change. If you think you don’t agree, then you should be stubborn on your vision. Part of being an inventor is that you have to have stubborn enough visions that many will think are wrong.”

We have, in New Brunswick (and, lately, in Canada as a whole), a tendency to think that failure of any sort is not worth the risk of taking a chance; even when, by not taking a chance, we risk almost certain disaster anyway.

What are our elected leaders actually doing that is at all innovative about the fiscal morass in which we find ourselves? What actual steps are they taking to generate real diversity into the local and so-called knowledge-based sectors of the economy?

Words are talismans. They possess the power to transform – to destroy and to remake the world – if we are innovative enough to let them.

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The many-splendored sources of innovation

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No compendium of great inventions would be complete without a nod to the personal computer. Naturally, those born after Blondie first warbled “Heart of Glass” will almost certainly rank the device as mankind’s No. 1 brainchild.

Clearly, the scientists and historians who contributed to The Atlantic’s Technology Issue (this month’s edition) are somewhat longer in the tooth than the average computer geek. For the cover story, “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel”, they relegated the near-ubiquitous machine to 16th place.

Meanwhile, the top spot went to. . .wait for it. . .the printing press, because, in the words of one judge, “the invention was the turning point at which knowledge began freely replicating and assumed a life of its own.”

In other words, Gutenberg’s invention (circa 1430) is, arguably, more significant in the history of innovation than a box of transistors and capacitors, because, without it, the pace of technological advancement would have remained stuck in first gear.

That’s oddly comforting to an ink-stained wretch such as myself, who was still writing magazine copy on a Royal portable typewriter as late as 1991.

But, The Atlantic’s exercise, and others like it (The Smithsonian magazine is just out with is “101 Objects That Made America”), is more interesting for what it says about how we perceive innovation than for its actual choices.

Indeed, writes lead contributor James Fallows, “One aspect of the results will be evident as soon as you start looking through them: the debatability of the choices and rankings once you move beyond the first few.”

He continues: “For instance, anesthesia, which, on its debut in 1846, began to distinguish surgery from torture, barely made the top 50, and that was only because one panelist pushed it hard. If I were doing the ranking, it would be in the top 10, certainly above the personal computer. In this case the test for me is: Which would I miss more if it didn’t exist? . . .I rely on personal computers, but I got along fine before their introduction; I still remember a dental procedure in England when the National Health Service didn’t pay for novocaine.”

Here, in Canada, the policy debate about innovation and technology has drawn a line in the sand between researchers and scientists, on one side, and bureaucrats and politicians, on the other.

The thinking, becoming ever more prevalent, in government is that innovations must be “useful” or “relevant” and replete with everyday applications to justify public investment. The National Research Council (NRC),  the Government of Canada’s “premier research and technology organization (RTO)” puts it this way: “RTOs are mission-oriented providers of innovation services to firms and governments, dedicated to building economic competitiveness and, in doing so, improving quality of life.”

Its vision is “to be the most effective research and development organization in the world, stimulating sustainable domestic prosperity.” Its mandate is to work with “clients and partners” and “provide innovation support, strategic research, scientific and technical services to develop and deploy solutions to meet Canada’s current and future industrial and societal needs.”

The language signals a recent and deliberate shift in the NRC’s position in society – one that’s more closely aligned to the interests of industry than to those of academia. And that worries many in the research community.

“You can’t convert a government research agency into a contract research organization,” Peter Morand, former dean of science and engineering at the University of Ottawa and a past president of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council told the Globe and Mail last May.

Added David Robinson of the Canadian Association of University Teachers in the same article: “It’s a very sad day for science in Canada. . .(The NRC) “was established to develop Canada’s basic research capacity and did perform admirably.”

Still, the root causes of innovation – especially of the technical varieties – are notoriously difficult to pin down. It is more often than not the case that hard science and applied research dance a stately minuet, from which emerge everything from nuclear fission and the telephone to the personal computer and the printing press.

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Re-inventing the N.B. economy

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No statistic serves ruling political priorities more faithfully than the monthly jobs number. When it’s up, governments rush to congratulate themselves for their acuity. When it’s down, they go out of their way to remind voters that deepening unemployment can’t possibly reflect a wayward policy agenda.

So it was, mere days ago, when Statistics Canada confirmed that in June New Brunswick posted the worst jobless rate in years – the worst, in fact, in Canada. According to a CBC report, “At 11.2 per cent, New Brunswick had the highest unemployment rate in the country for the first time while Newfoundland and Labrador saw its unemployment rate dip to just below 11 per cent to 10.9, a significant decrease of 1.9 percentage points from a year ago, the biggest year-on-year decline in the country. . .Manitoba and British Columbia saw the biggest employment increases in June, gaining 7,300 and 8,900 jobs, respectively.”

Meanwhile, “Ontario’s unemployment rate inched up slightly in June, rising 0.2 percentage points to 7.5 per cent. Employment was up 1.6 per cent in the province compared with a year ago. An increase in part-time work in the province was offset by a decline in full-time work, which was also true for the country as a whole.”

The news left New Brunswick Liberal Leader Brian Gallant salivating. Quoted in the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, he said, “We’ve lost 7,000 jobs since the government came to power and as we’re waiting for them to come up with a plan we see that New Brunswickers have to leave our province. We’re the only province in the country that saw its population decrease last year.”

To which Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard appeared to retort, in a statement, “We are building new jobs and new industries through our recently announced $20 million investment over five years to support research and innovation in New Brunswick as part of our $80-million innovation strategy.”

He then blathered on, in predictable fashion, about the job-killing predilections of his Grit rivals, whose support of a moratorium on shale gas development, he insinuated, threatens to upend longterm economic development in the province.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the wisdom of hitching New Brunswick’s fortunes to the deeply controversial prospect of onshore petroleum production, this government wastes its time defending its record in the face of the June unemployment metric. It might argue just as convincingly that the jobless rate in that month was good news, for it could have been much worse.

For some time, New Brunswick’s economy has been undergoing profound, even structural, changes, most of which have had little to do with the partisan identities of those who have ruled the roost in Fredericton. Governments of both Progressive Conservative and Liberal persuasions have been broadly feckless in their management of economic opportunities.

There have been the “prosperity plans” and the “growth agendas,” the “blueprints for change” and the “roadmaps for sustainability.” There have been the “big gets” and the “major announcements.” Sprinkled throughout the years have been new slogans, old slogans and, occasionally, no slogans to reflect New Brunswick’s salient dilemma:  A fundamental lack of direction.

People, here, are aging. Young people are leaving. Aging people are leaving. The problem is not, essentially, that they can’t find rewarding work; it is, increasingly, that such work is temporary, fleeting, rootless.

Economic development is not about plans, priorities and programs. It’s not even about tax breaks. It’s about building capacity from the ground up. It’s about nurturing a culture of innovation, enterprise, self-reliance and self-determination. It’s about incubating entrepreneurship.

“What makes Silicon Valley so successful?” asks the website Internationalboost.com. “It’s the story of a number of pioneers who were able to produce an environment that stimulated the emergence of entrepreneurial talent and, most importantly, attracted more of this same talent into the area. . .Silicon Valley is not only the place where companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Apple can literally be founded in a garage – it is the foundation for these companies to continue to re-invent and innovate, becoming world-dominant players in ever-evolving markets and technologies.”

If New Brunswick’s political establishment finally grasp what ought to be self-evident about the province’s prospects, then the monthly job numbers will look after themselves.

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How (not) to breed a culture of innovation

Think about tech at least once in your freakin' life!

Think about tech at least once in your freakin’ life!

Once again, a major Canadian think tank concludes that the nation’s private sector is not spending enough of research and development, on science and technology. Once again, the news runs buried in the tech sections of the day’s print organs, all but guaranteeing the predictable reader response of “so what.”

For decades – at least since the early 1980s – experts have warned that unless industry picks up the pace of innovation, the consequences for Canada’s productivity and competitiveness in the global economy will be dire. But what, exactly, does that mean and why should anyone outside the pearly gates of academe give a fig?

Not long ago, the Conference Board of Canada took a shot at answering the question. In a report entitled “How Canada Performs”, the organization had this to say about the country’s low ranking, compared to other economies, on innovation:

“Overall, countries that are more innovative are passing Canada on measures such as income per capita, productivity, and the quality of social programs. It is also critical to environmental protection, a high-performing education system, a well-functioning system of health promotion and health care, and an inclusive society. Without innovation, all these systems stagnate and Canada’s performance deteriorates relative to that of its peers.”

What’s more, the Board said, “With new key players – such as China, India, and Brazil – in the global economy, Canadian businesses must move up the value chain and specialize in knowledge-intensive, high-value-added goods and services. Although Canada has some leading companies that compete handily against global peers, its economy is not as innovative as its size would otherwise suggest.”

Now, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) – a creature of the current federal government – adds its voice to the chorus. “Canada’s gross domestic expenditures on R&D (GERD) declined from their peak in 2008 and, when measured in relation to gross domestic product (GDP), since 2001,” it reports. “In contrast, the GERD and GERD intensity of most other countries have been increasing. Canada’s declining GERD intensity has pushed its rank down from 16th position in 2006 to 17th in 2008 and to 23rd in 2011 (among 41 economies). . .The more recent declines in the country’s total R&D funding efforts are attributable predominantly to private sector funding of R&D.”

The Council also notes, somewhat cheerfully that “Canadians understand that, if we want to create jobs and opportunity in a competitive world and address the key societal challenges that confront us in the 21st century, STI must be an integral part of the national agenda.”

But here’s the thing: I’m not at all sure Canadians do – understand, that is. If they did, then this conversation, which feels like a toothache, would be over. So would the chimerical debate, in government circles, about funding hard, “blue sky” science at the “expense” of applied, commercially viable research. Notice where these discussions almost never occur: Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, and, yes, even the United States.

That’s because these nations, unlike Canada, have recognized the truth of their circumstances, which is, both simple and elegant: If you want an innovative culture, you have to breed a culture of innovation. And silos of self-interest won’t help you accomplish the task. All segments of society – government, industry, higher education – must pull in the same direction if we’re going to get anywhere.

Or, as the STIC observes, “The responsibility is shared: all participants in our STI ecosystem have a role to play in driving enhanced performance and lifting Canada into the ranks of the world’s leading innovative economies. It is not just about investing more, but about investing more strategically and coherently, focusing our resources and efforts, learning from the experience of global STI leaders and improving agility to seize emerging opportunities. That is how Canada will truly be able to ‘run with the best.’”

It’s also how you convince average Canadians, who may not often read the tech sections of their newspapers, that their material well being – their wages and standards of living – depends directly on the quantity and quality of the innovations they enlist in the service of their respective futures.

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