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In a world where innovative techniques, technologies and businesses created anywhere disrupt markets everywhere, the federal government’s decision to pursue an Innovation Agenda is timely and important. Our country’s ability to make innovation a long-term national competitive advantage requires us recognize that innovation is inherently messy. Every successful innovation is the result of countless inspirations, interactions, experiments and decisions. Increasing the complexity is the reality that each region and each sector has unique opportunities and challenges.
Given this complexity, we need to acknowledge that we don’t have all of the answers. Rather than trying to find a silver bullet to Canada’s innovation challenges, we need to focus on finding ways to launch promising policy ideas quickly, measure the results and improve or abandon those initiatives that underperform. We also will need to scale up those initiatives that do work – quickly. Making innovation a national competitive advantage through this kind of social innovation requires us to focus on three building blocks: talent, ideas, and dynamic regions.
Innovation is a human activity that requires talented people with a wide variety of skillsets and educational backgrounds. While Canada has a strong post-secondary education system, our ability to compete in an increasingly knowledge based global economy will require us to do better. A comprehensive strategy for “Highly Qualified Persons” (HQP) focused on developing and attracting talented people will be essential.
The HQP strategy will need incorporate improving post-secondary outcomes for indigenous students and attracting more top international students. It will need to address the fact that the percent of our workforce that has completed either a Master’s or a PhD is less than the OECD average. The strategy will need embrace experiential learning to help our students become more job ready and continuous upskilling to help those already in the labour force be more innovation ready. It will also need to embrace the immigration of HQP as a essential part of any innovation strategy.
As Ben Bernanke said, “Fundamental research is ultimately the source of most innovation, albeit often with long lags.” Debates about how to achieve ‘balance’ between discovery and market-driven research overlooks the fact that we can only be a world-leading innovation nation by rising our ambition in all forms of science and research. We will need to develop strategies that give our innovators a head start by capitalizing on discoveries that are nearer to the frontiers of knowledge.
Such a strategy would build the pursuit of world-class fundamental research at our universities by increasing the flow of knowledge through increased interaction between researchers and businesses and through training HQP that join innovative firms. Strategic investments in creating robust interactions between research institutions and innovators could be very fruitful.
Dynamic regions are where talent and ideas combine with the capital, infrastructures and other supports they need to develop and scale their innovations. Regions from coast to coast have unique location-based competitive advantages resulting from their geography, resources, history, culture, institutions or society. If we are to compete globally as a nation, we will need to strategically capitalize on these unique competitive advantages to build globally competitive clusters.
Capitalizing on these location-based advantages will require different investments in different clusters. In one cluster the highest impact investment may be an international trade mission, in another it may be a coding boot camp, in another it may be solving a next-generation technology challenge. A cluster’s innovation partners (post-secondary institutions, entrepreneurship organizations, all levels of government, etc.) are best placed to determine what the most important investments would be. The federal government can best meet these needs by creating a flexible framework where a clusters innovation partners can apply for funding to address specific, measurable needs.
Developing a strategic focus on turning economic and social innovation into a core Canadian value is ever more important with the accelerating pace of change. However, competing globally in order to create jobs and prosperity domestically, will require Canada to strategically invest in world-class talent, ideas and knowledge and dynamic regions.
Guy Breton is Chair of the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities, and Rector of the Université de Montréal.