From the editors: Talkin’ ’bout our innovation

Building a culture of innovation, one science fair at a time.

(Photo: Christopher Wahl)

For those concerned about improving Canada’s economic future, “innovation” is a common watchword. Talk of innovation overflows from cabinet ministers’ speeches, think-tank reports and corporate executives’ talking points; innovation is invoked as a seemingly mystical cure for any financial ill. Weak export numbers? Innovate. Low productivity? Innovation will fix that. Forestry sector struggling? Rub a little innovation on it. Being innovative—like kindness to animals or regular toothbrushing—feels like the sort of thing toward which we should all aspire, which explains its frequent invocation. Yet proponents often leave the term ill defined and poorly understood. Which is problematic, because while Canadians love talking about innovation, we’re not very good at actually innovating.

Innovation is the ability to invent new ideas, processes and products and then transform these into goods and services. You measure a country’s ability to innovate using myriad factors, including registered trademarks, articles published in scientific journals and the size of its export market in fields like electronics or pharmaceuticals. When the Conference Board of Canada last year surveyed a dozen of these indicators, they came to a disconcerting conclusion. The board’s researchers gave Canada a grade of D on an innovation report card, putting it 14th among 17 industrialized nations, placing behind the likes of the United States, Japan and Germany. “With some exceptions, Canada does not take the steps that other countries take to ensure science is successfully commercialized,” the report concluded. Perhaps more worrisome, Canada’s been a remedial student in innovation for four decades, according to Anne Golden, the Conference Board’s president and CEO. All of the experts’ pontificating has proven ineffective.

Yet this is an issue that matters. Improving on the factors associated with innovation will shield us from downturns in commodity prices and make our manufacturing sector more competitive against the juggernauts of China and India. An uptick in invention can also bolster cornerstones of Canadian society like universities and the health-care system. Innovation isn’t about economic abstracts; it’s about more jobs and better salaries.

Canadians need to push their governments, their businesses and their schools to implement concrete policies to foster innovation. If we haven’t yet, perhaps it’s because we allow talk of an “innovation agenda” to reside in the realm of academic abstracts. With this issue, Canadian Business launches a campaign to move from theoretical discussions to concrete solutions. Our Economy of the Future series will highlight the obstacles preventing Canada from being more innovative. More important, we’ll also offer case studies with clear solutions to our woes. First off, staff writer Rachel Mendleson on instilling a spirit of innovation in our kids (page 49).

In addition to kicking off a new series, readers will also notice this issue marks the launch of our new Analysis section. With biting commentary and trenchant opinion from journalists, academics and business people, this new section is designed to offer readers further insight into the issues facing Canadian businesses today. We figured if we were going to become champions of innovation, we better do a little innovating ourselves.