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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