Rebooting Canada’s broken innovation system

Andrea Nemtin and Tim Draimin

QUOI Media

The most common themes about Canada’s growth-oriented innovation system are that it is unwieldy, expensive and underperforming. The latest WIPO 2023 report notes that Canada’s innovation inputs dramatically exceed its outputs. But these critiques miss the mark.

Innovation is traditionally understood as science and technological advances resulting in the development and commercialization of improved products and services. It thrives on efficiency, competition and market-driven solutions. Think of Silicon Valley’s tech giants, continuously pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with gadgets and software — smartphones, electric vehicles and the Internet, transforming the ways we live and work.

Success is measured in economic growth which can create much needed jobs. Too often however, innovation fails to create prosperity for Canadians or drive social or environmental outcomes. 

Canada’s innovation policy framework needs a new paradigm and a fundamental reboot. 

Increasingly governments are identifying the need to apply innovation to social and environmental challenges through what is known variously as social innovation, inclusive innovation, mission innovation, or most recently, transformation innovation. These terms all mean innovation that tackles societal challenges with creative solutions that aim to improve the well-being of communities, people and the environment.

Social innovation seeks to address issues like poverty, healthcare access, climate change, education inequality and affordable housing. It works to address the root causes of complex challenges with a portfolio of solutions that together create systemic change. Social innovation fosters positive social and environmental outcomes that drive local economic growth.  

While both traditional innovation and social innovation aim to drive progress and change, understanding the nuances between the two forms is crucial, as it not only helps us appreciate their roles in society but also sheds light on the imperative for prioritizing social innovation. 

So, what do we need to do to make social innovation a reality?

In an era of poly-crisis, social innovation offers Canada the potential for transformation, but it will require policy shifts to get us there. The recent publication from the Brookfield Institutes, Canada’s Moonshot, Solving Grand Challenges Through Transformational Innovation categorically states: “Canada’s innovation policy framework does not sufficiently align innovation with solving the most pressing social, economic, and environmental problems that Canada and the world face today.”  

The report identifies five basic principles for designing enabling policy for transformative innovations or “moonshots.”  We would do well to heed them:

            •           Select “grand challenges” that have clear, bold, measurable and time-limited goals that are sector-, discipline-, and technology-agnostic and that align with top government priorities.

            •           Seek a lean, agile and independent governance structure.

            •           Coordinate end-to-end support using a wide range of policy instruments to help scale the most promising ideas and help them reach their intended markets.

            •           Create meaningful engagement with willing stakeholders, including existing innovation ecosystem actors, leading industry and research experts, communities and the wider public. 

            •           Use a portfolio approach to managing risk, a high tolerance for failure, and an evaluation framework focused on learning and adaptation.

The resulting policies should address needs that are unmet and of little interest to public or private investment due to their complexity or because there’s no profit to be made.  The policies also create the environment for collaboration between different actors — from academia, industry, government, communities or civil society (NGOs or non-profit organizations).  

Mariana Mazzucato recently published, Inclusive and Sustainable British Columbia: A Mission-oriented Approach to a Renewed Economy that identifies a complementary approach to the development of enabling an innovative policy framework based on four questions:

            •           Overall Objectives: Do the overall aims of innovation policy involve more than economic growth?

            •           Direction of innovation: Whose needs are being met?

            •           Participation in innovation: Who participates in innovation?

            •           Governance of innovation: Who sets priorities and how are the outcomes of innovation managed?

Bringing these questions to bear on Canada’s innovation policy would be highly disruptive — and necessary.

Between the legacy of a still-smoldering pandemic, the dramatically rising costs of climate change and the deteriorating indicators of social well-being (mental health, housing, income inequality, etc.), innovation goals must now be directly aligned with the social and environmental needs of Canadians. 

By prioritizing social innovation, we can create a more equitable and sustainable future for all.

Andrea Nemtin is currently the CEO of Social Innovation Canada. Tim Draimin is Senior Fellow at Community Foundations of Canada and board member of Social Innovation Canada, Trico Charitable Foundation and Green Economy Canada.