How Canada can create a culture of innovation

Date: Thursday October 20, 2016

Innovation gap is a serious drag on economic growth

Marty Reed, President and CEO of Evok Innovations, says Canadian entrepreneurs lack intensity.

By Kent Aitken

Many speakers at last week’s Public Policy Forum Growth Summit in Ottawa agreed that Canada lacks a culture of innovation, and that it’s seriously hampering our economic growth.

Marty Reed, President and CEO of Evok Innovations, lamented the “lack of intensity” among Canadian entrepreneurs. “Silicon Valley firms looking to invest will ask ‘Will this management team [in Canada] work as hard as the team in the Valley?’ And the answer is often no.” Reed’s anecdotal evidence may be grounded; Deloitte just released a report suggesting that Canadian businesses lack courage and that those who are bolder are outperforming their peers.

The question is how to create that culture, and the participants — from startup leaders to the Governor General — had ideas ranging from the 10,000-foot view to the granular, from national economic policy to the day-to-day experience of tech talent looking to move and settle here.

Governor General David Johnston focused his remarks on this question of an innovation culture, considering it the central challenge for economic growth. To get there, he offered six prescriptions — with roles for governments, the private sector, and connector and incubator organizations:

1 Go global with learning and research, drawing international students to Canadian universities, sending students abroad, and working with international partners. He added that Canada’s higher education advantage is shrinking as other countries build top-tier universities, and we shouldn’t assume that we can attract the best international students in the future without raising the bar.

2 Turn Canada into a global talent hub, “with a view to improving the flow of talent into Canada and out to the world as talent ambassadors.”

3 Support those who are being left behind: while Canada’s social mobility measures are strong — specifically, the percentage of children who meet or exceed their parents’ education levels — they’re lagging for our bottom 20 per cent.

4 Raise our expectations and aim for global excellence. Compete for top prizes in more fields as part of a wider strategy to attract top talent in a globalized world.

5 Encourage and honour excellence in entrepreneurship and innovation in Canada, to make it part of the Canadian DNA.

6 Put innovation at the core of talent development at every stage.

The Governor General’s remarks dovetailed with themes throughout the day. His remarks about supporting those left behind echoed calls from Roberta Jamieson and Perry Bellegarde to commit to improved educational outcomes for First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. Where Canada’s OECD quality of life ranking is 6th, it drops to 63rd for indigenous communities.

The Established Innovators panelists discussed the global excellence theme as well. Ilse Treurnicht, CEO of MaRS, called for an economic version of Canada’s Olympic Own the Podium program, where we “don’t pick winners, we back winners” and try to understand what individual firms need to scale up and go global.

Canada has work to do, said Johnston. “A culture of innovation doesn’t happen by accident, but by countless daily acts and sustained efforts over time. It happens because we make it happen. It happens because we believe that to be innovative lies at the heart of what it means to be Canadian. To ask, ‘How do we do things better?’ — and then do just that — is part of the basic makeup of our country.”

Kent Aitken is the Prime Ministers of Canada Fellow at Canada’s Public Policy Forum, studying governance in the digital era. He also blogs at Canadian Public Service Renewal.

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