Op-ed: Ottawa's innovation overdose renders buzzword meaningless

Innovation Stock Image
A Budget 2017 graphic showing what innovation looks like. Note the lightbulb.

We’ve brought you here to talk. Please sit down.

Canadian politicians, entrepreneurs, and yes, media titans like ourselves, have an addiction to the word innovation. Like most illicit substances, it made us feel good when we first used it, like we were achieving new highs.

But now we’re overdosing on innovation, and using the word leaves us feeling shallow, empty, and without meaning.

Gabe Batstone, CEO of Ottawa’s Contextere, told OBJ last year that the buzzword has lost its impact in his circles of business.

“Innovation is almost a four-letter word at this point,” he says. “It’s a word that’s become to some extent meaningless.”

Canada’s finance minister Bill Morneau is now the country's most high profile innovation user, following Wednesday’s release of the federal budget. Touted as a budget for an innovative Canada, an analysis by The Globe and Mail shows that the 2017 budget uses the word innovation and its derivatives 364 times, more than triple the number in last year’s budget.

“To strengthen and grow the middle class, and remain competitive in the global economy, Canada must do more to encourage innovation,” reads page 17 of the budget document. “Innovation is, simply put, the understanding that better is always possible.”

No, it’s not. It’s using a novel and effective approach to solve a problem.

Innovation has become the buzzword that politicians and entrepreneurs use to avoid elaborating on specific solutions.

Economy not doing well? Spend somewhere and justify it with “innovation.”

What does your company do? We are the leading innovators in this-and-that.

Where do you do you work? An innovation centre.

The Innovation Centre at Bayview Yards.

The Innovation Centre at Bayview Yards.

Ottawa has no fewer than four of these. Bayview Yards, Blackberry’s QNX, Lockheed Martin and Algonquin College have all established such centres for students and startups to partake in group innovation sessions.

Indeed, some of Ottawa’s brightest minds work in these facilities, which bring together entrepreneurs, experts and capital to code and construct what backers are betting will be the companies and products of the future.

This, supposedly, is where innovation is bred.

But can we call it what it is? Instead of saying innovation, say you’re developing solutions that don’t exist yet. Say you’re working with people across disciplines to tackle problems from a new angle. Whatever you’re doing, instead of giving a vague description of the process, focus on the outcome you’re driving towards.

We at Techopia are guilty of it, too. Last month, we took an extensive look at healthcare innovation, the need for more innovation, and who in the city was doing that innovation. What, really, were we looking at when we said we were analyzing innovation?

The answer can probably be found in the first question we asked in our innovator profiles: “How will your work change the way a patient receives healthcare?” If a purported innovator cannot answer the question as to how his or her work will solve or improve the problem in a unique way, he or she is no innovator at all.

This is not to say that the economic planks in the Liberals’ budget are entirely hollow. The financial plan does call for $950 million to be funneled into a handful of (“highly innovative”) sectors such as biosciences that will help companies expand, although such policies may be decried as corporate welfare by some free-market adherents.

And offering up $75 million to companies willing to take on challenges such as reducing the reliance of rural and northern communities on diesel fuel, for example, can advance the country’s clean-tech capabilities.

But the budget still holds up “innovation” as the elixir that will lift the country out of its alleged economic malaise. It won’t. That will require globally competitive, revenue-generating companies that employ Canadians in well-paying jobs, goals that other parts of the budget address to varying degrees.

Here’s the thing: Innovation sounds great. But it should not be the goal of a government, a city, a company or an entrepreneur.

Innovation is not an end – it is the means to an end.

It is the drug, not the high.

Now, if only we could just figure out what exactly a supercluster is.

Update: We acknowledge the word innovation was used a fair bit in this op-ed.