Opinion: Regaining our innovative edge

One of Canada’s most distinguished former public servants recently gave a speech on the state of innovation in this country that was both inspirational and depressing.

Kevin Lynch, a former Clerk of the Privy Council under Stephen Harper, delivered the annual Dick, Ruth and Judy Bell Lecture at Carleton University on March 1. His topic was “Can Canada Become an Innovation Nation – and Why Does it Matter?”

Mr. Lynch has the experience and background to bring both a national and international perspective to this topic. Not only did he provide advice to the prime minister, he was also deputy minister for Industry Canada under John Manley, Canada’s executive director at the International Monetary Fund and a chair of the University of Waterloo’s board of governors. Currently he is vice-chair of the BMO Financial Group and a visiting lecturer around the world.

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Mr. Lynch offered a great perspective on what companies and countries around the world are doing to become innovation leaders.

For example, exporting innovative products is critical to Canada’s economic growth and survival. Yet even though Canada likes to think of itself as an exporting nation, we are in fact very insular in our global outlook. Mr. Lynch noted that only 11 per cent of Ontario businesses export, and if you remove the companies that export only to the United States, that number drops to one per cent.

Mr. Lynch also discussed the disruptive technology advances that will transform life, business and the global economy, based on a report from the McKinsey Global Institute. The report identifies 12 technologies that could drive massive economic transformations and disruptions in the coming years, including advanced oil and gas exploration, cloud computing, mobile Internet technology, next-generation genomics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, energy storage, 3D printing and others.

Canada has strong potential in many of these areas, but we are not even close to being world leaders in any of them. Rather than concentrate our investments on sectors where we can dominate, we sprinkle money all over and end up achieving little. Mr. Lynch is a strong advocate of a national innovation strategy that will focus our public investments on a few disruptive technologies.

He also discussed the development of regional tech “clusters” to support such a strategy. Mr. Lynch is very involved in the Kitchener-Waterloo region (although he lives in Ottawa) and is very familiar with that cluster’s strengths. But he does not know as much about the strengths of other regions, especially Ottawa.

Clusters are both geographic and industry focused because the idea was originally developed before we had instant and ubiquitous communications tools. While a cluster is still about industry and technology expertise, the concept of geography can be limiting, especially in a country as big as Canada.

If we are trying to promote one regional cluster as better than another, we are automatically creating competition among ourselves. But our real competition is not in Canada – it is in the United States, Europe, India and China. If our tech clusters waste precious time and resources competing with each other, we will never be ready to take on the world.

I don’t like to say the sky is falling, but just look at this country’s economic growth over the past decade. Overall, it has flatlined. Yes, Canada has some great companies, but the rest of the world is creating more and doing more and Canadian industry is quickly falling behind.

Now is the time to develop a national innovation strategy that concentrates on areas in which our businesses are ready to invest. To do this with any kind of impact on our economy, the country must focus its resources on where it can be a leader and not where it can only be a follower.

The last time Canada tried to develop a national innovation strategy a decade ago, it was all about “show” and not substance. Regional innovation workshops were held across the country with lots of speeches and discussions. By the time the final national event was held in Toronto, the energy was gone. The prime minister, who was supposed to attend in person, sent a video message instead, and I watched as many business leaders walked out of the room. The final “strategy” offered no clear direction. Ten years later, we’re still waiting.

Mr. Lynch noted that developing a national innovation strategy is not easy for Canadians and our public service. There is always another person or group we would like to get input from, another open consultation that might assist in clarifying a few points. We suffer from paralysis by analysis.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada is a resourceful nation, not just a resource nation. Not only does this country need to be resourceful, it needs to be decisive and extremely focused.

We have an abundance of natural energy sources, so perhaps our No. 1 focus should be on advanced oil and gas exploration. We once held a leadership position in genomics, so maybe we can regain that status. In the 1990s, we were one of the top research and business centres for telecommunications. Can we now assume a role as leaders in the fields of Internet of Things, cloud computing or mobile Internet technology? We could also look to the autonomous vehicle sector, tapping into Ontario’s strengths as the former top producer of vehicles in North America.

If we regain our focus, we have a chance to be global leaders in these fields.

Even if you’re not a fan of the new Liberal government, there is no denying there is new energy in Ottawa. Canada is once again being talked about on the world stage. Now is the time for this country to gain a global economic advantage by focusing on becoming an innovation leader in a few key technologies.


Jeffrey Dale is the president of Snowy Cloud and the former president of the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation.

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