skip main menu skip submenu

Canada's Real Innovation Gap

by Michael Berman, Robyn McCallum, David Fascinato, Ryan J. A. Murphy

The following is drawn from Canada’s Real Innovation Gap: Leverage points and opportunities for change in the Canadian innovation system — a research project and report by a team of students in the Master of Design in Strategic Foresight & Innovation program at OCAD University.

Innovation has been a popular idea in the 21st century.

The processes of innovation drive forward many aspects of life, society, and the impact we have on many elements in the world around us. In Canada, innovation is tied to our national capacity to build successful enterprises that can do business competitively both at home and abroad. From mining to agriculture, manufacturing to energy, Canadian enterprises are recognized for having invested time, talent and money into generating new ways of doing business,
Despite these successes, we still tend to measure ourselves against the enviable success of the US and the innumerable hubs dotting that nation and that are spawning legions of disruptive technology firms. When we compare, we are prone to fall into a national anxiety, a paralyzing fear that we have or are already rapidly falling behind.

Understandably, agricultural advances are less sexy than technology — but they are just as innovative and disruptive. As Canadians, though, we tend to forget this and instead focus on what is just out of reach as opposed to what is within our grasp.

What is innovation?

Innovation combines an idea with requisite talent and capital supports to solve a problem and generate new value.

Systemic Elements at Play

Our research suggests two systemic elements may help or hinder innovation within the Canadian economy:
Structural – such as government trade regimes, tax, incentives, and granting programs; patents and IP provisions; industry-specific regulatory policies; regional consumer markets; and the state of physical infrastructure
Cultural – such as the presence of the entrepreneurial mindset, the risk tolerance or risk aversion, or the hardened garrison mentality, and the paradox of the water buffalo vs. the gazelle, which describes the challenge that businesses face when attempting to scale

Key Stakeholders

There are many stakeholders within the innovation space in Canada—businesses, individuals, agencies, and multiple levels of government to name a few. For the purpose of our research project, our team selected the Federal Government as our primary stakeholder. This decision was made with consideration to their dominant role within the system and for their unique ability to influence aspects of the structural and cultural factors that help or hinder innovation in Canada.

Perception Gap

The perception that Canada is failing to innovate is not inaccurate; it’s just not the complete story. While Canada tends to receive mixed ratings on how well it “innovates”, the reality is more nuanced than what most articles might reveal. For example, there is a strong perception that Canada lags other nations and fails in comparisons to the US; but this is the result of a fixation on technology-centric innovation (e.g. software and hardware). Meanwhile, the reality is that Canada’s strategic advantage in innovation resides in other, less sexy sectors and industries (like advanced manufacturing or agriculture).
The disparity between this perception and the reality results in incongruent approaches on how to address the structural/cultural barriers to innovation. Ultimately, these elements underpin a frayed concept of the ‘idea / knowledge economy’ and what this means to Canada’s economy and long-term growth.
To remedy this, we need to change the conversation.
So how do we do this?

Three Recommendations:

Foster the Idea Economy

Our findings suggest the need to take a collective leap and author a White Paper that will activate a national approach on the new, ideas-based economy. In doing so, the Government of Canada will engage a collective of stakeholders, thought leaders and businesses both large and small to lead a national dialogue on how innovation ought to play out across Canada’s diverse communities, companies and campuses.

Change the Narrative

Increasing awareness about the need for, and impact of, innovation within advanced manufacturing, natural resources and agriculture will help cross pollinate the economy with more robust, productive approaches and solutions.

Redirect the pipeline

The ultimate step is to increase the carrying capacity of the system to generate value for entrepreneurs from outside the technology sector. Drawing sectors and industries together with the innovation ecosystem will build deeper and more diverse connections. Diverting the flow of resources – talent and capital – and binding it with existing infrastructure and institutional support will build a depth that will support a more robust Canadian economy. Furthermore, investing in improving the structures that nurture prosperity – incubators, accelerators, entrepreneurship, and innovation programs – and bringing them together with campuses and companies already making an impact, will propel Canada forward.
For more on the team’s research, visit and read their full report: Canada’s Real Innovation Gap: Leverage points and opportunities for change in the Canadian innovation system.

Note: The ideas and opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of RECODE.

May 24, 2016 | Tags: