30th August 2010 Ottawa, Canada

What is "Innovation"?

Have you ever asked yourself: “What is innovation?”

Maybe not, but as a Science & “Innovation” officer, I ask myself that all the time!  So with this blog posting, I thought I’d give myself the excellent excuse to figure out just what we mean by Innovation, and also, what it means in Canada in particular.

I’m not the first one to ask myself these questions, and will inevitability not be the last either.  Over the past couple of years there have been several groups asking themselves similar questions, and I will be relying on them, and my friendly neighbourhood search engine, to help me demystify.

Now you should all be warned in advance, that I am not an expert in innovation, so this in unlikely to be an in-depth commentary on all that is right or wrong in the world on this subject…but it will be a preliminary and educational exploration of the concepts involved.

First and foremost…how would “I” define the term innovation?  Well I would define innovation as: “Cutting edge ideas &/or research that, through practical application, are or can fundamentally change the way we do something”.  For me that something can really encompass pretty much everything…including (but not restricted to) industrial processes (for example processing of forestry products or mineral extraction); market products (smart phones), information & communication technologies (ICT) (wireless)…you name it.

How do others define Innovation?  Well I’d say that Tim Mendham, Editor of Fast Thinking – an Australian publication focused on innovation, provided an excellent summary of how various groups have defined innovation in his blog posting on the subject, titled “The Meaning of Innovation“.  Take a look and let me know what you think, maybe you define it differently than I do; I’d be interested in hearing your take.

Of course once you’ve defined innovation as a concept, you must also identify ways in which you can asses it (this is a science-y blog after all ;P).  Well, according to The Canadian Council of Academies (CCA) report: Innovation and Business Strategy: Why Canada Falls Short (PDF), factors that can be used to asses one’s innovation capabilities include rate of multifactor productivity (MFP) growth (which reflects the efficiency with which resources such as labour and capital are combined within the economy to produce goods and services.  Sometimes this is simply termed “productivity”), as well as levels of investment in R&D and ICT. While these three factors are all important in establishing innovative capabilities, the MFP is considered a major innovation indicator.

So on to my next thought exercise, what does innovation look like in Canada? Well, in 2008-2009, there were a couple of key reports that highlighted the need to focus on Canadian innovation as a means to improve prosperity and global impact. In 2008 the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) published a report entitled “State of the Nation 2008:Assessment and Way Forward”, provided an overview of the health of Canada’s science, technology and innovation system. This was followed up in April 2009, by the release of The Canadian Council of Academies(CCA) a report entitled: Innovation and Business Strategy: Why Canada Falls Short (PDF). Both these reports were reasonably critical of the state of ongoing Canadian Innovation, pointing out that although Canada has a strong foundation upon which to build up Canada’s innovation capabilities (which have been showing a decline following the 2001 peak in the technology boom), there a need to focus more on fostering innovation for the good of the current Canadian economy and that of the future.  These reports brought the issue of innovation in Canada to the spot light, prompting public discourse on the matter (always a good think I think), including this piece, by Konrad Yakabuski in the Globe and Mail, and more recently, this piece, by our own Shiva Amiri, in The Mark News.  The Conference Board of Canada gives a quick overview of Canadian Innovation and it’s ranking among other OECD countries.

So what is going on in Canada to help improve innovation capabilities?  As mentioned in both the CCA and STIC reports, there is no one party to blame, or quick fix solution. Having said that, there are several programs in place aimed at addressing the issue of innovation and fostering a “knowledge economy”. As many of you know, the Canadian system of government is broken into several sectors, at the top of which is the Federal, followed by the Provincial/Territorial governments. I’m going to focus on these levels of government and talk about several program and initiatives currently underway.

At the Federal level, there are several programs designed to help support industrial and academic R&D, including (and this is by no means a comprehensive list, please feel free to suggest others that I may have missed but you think deserve to be mentioned in the comments section! I’d be more than happy to discuss them further ;P):

National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, (NRC-IRAP) which supports small to medium sized businesses through various programs.

The NRC also supports innovation through the creation & fostering of research clusters.

The Federal government also supports R&D through it’s Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) Tax Incentive Program, which is one of the most advantageous tax incentives worldwide.

At the research institution level, the Federal government also supports programs aimed at transferring research into innovation, with institutions like Genome Canada, who specifically require funding applicants to explain (with evidence to support) the benefits of their research to Canada (section 3.3 of the competition guidelines):

“All applications must describe, with supporting evidence, the potential benefits for Canada which will be realized or initiated before the end of the project. Potential economic benefits could include one or more of the following: a) job creation and economic growth in Canada, b) development of a product or service, or, c) creation of intellectual property (e.g., filing a patent) leading to potential licenses and/or new start-ups.”

As well as supporting research infrastructure through the Canadian Foundation for Innovation , allowing researchers to set their own research priorities, in response to the dynamic research environment.

And finally at the basic R&D level, through University funded research, which holds an important role in Canadian innovation related R&D, the federal government funds research through funding the three main funding councils:  

Currently there is also an innovation movement happening on the provincial/territorial  level, with regular meetings of provincial and territorial ministers responsible for innovation. The most recent of which was on June 30, 2010 in Quebec City, where they were joined by their federal counterparts, Minister of state for Science & Technology, Gary Goodyear, and Industry Minister, Tony Clement. The next such meeting is to take place this fall, with the participation of business leaders and entrepreneurs. Many provinces also have ministries specifically focusing on Innovation, making it a provincial priority, with innovation focused initiatives:

In addition to these Federal and Provincial innovation initiatives, on May 27th, 2009, The Public Policy Forum (PPF), a not-for-profit organisation “that aims to improve the quality of government in Canada through enhanced dialogue among the public, private and voluntary sectors.” convened a 1-day symposium on the subject of innovation, called “Science Day in Canada”.  The goal of this even was to bring together parties from across sectors (provincial, federal, industry, academic, not-for-profit,…) to discuss how to “transform Canada into an innovation champion” see the report here. Between September 2009 & May 2010, the PPF has been focusing on their “Innovation Next” initiative – convening multi-sector rounds table events across the country, in order to develop a set of next steps to be taken forward in order develop a culture and practice of innovation in Canada, an innovation blueprint. These meetings culminated in the Innovation Next, national conference that took place in Toronto on May 27th, 2010. I look forward to seeing what will develop from that exercise.

While I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive study of innovation initiatives in Canada, it is a start, and I’m sure that the dialogue on innovation in Canada (and elsewhere in the world) will continue.  If you have any thoughts on the matter, or feel that I have missed out on any particular part of the Canadian innovation equation, please let me know – I’m happy to continue to take part in this discourse!

About Nicole Arbour

Based in the National Capital, I cover the federal S&T sector, national S&T organisations, as well as local industry and academic partners. I manage the UK’s Science & Innovation Network…

Based in the National Capital, I cover the federal S&T sector, national S&T organisations, as well as local industry and academic partners. I manage the UK’s Science & Innovation Network in Canada, and our contribution towards the wider Canada-UK relationship. This year my focus will be working towards the delivery of the Canada-UK Joint Declaration and the Canada-UK Joint Innovation Statement. In my spare time I like to cook and spend quality time with my family. Find me on Twitter @narbour