23 November 2011

Innovation, competitiveness, productivity: who is responsible for research outcomes?

The ACCT Canada conference concluded this week, and as indicated in my last post, featured many good speakers discussing the role of technology transfer and commercialization of research in Canada. Highlights included a Debate on Commercialization Systems & Supports, in which John Molloy, President & CEO, PARTEQ Innovations, asked rhetorically: given that Canada spends $6B per year on R&D, who is responsible for commercialization of research? The notion of responsibility resonated with me, as it foregrounds a very useful discussion relating to Canada's poor record on innovation and productivity.

I've noted here before that not all research need be oriented to a commercial outcome. That said, all research has a purpose, be it discovery or applied. The difference is in the time horizon of this application. It is disingenuous of us to say that we conduct research for its own sake, for even curiosity driven research has an outcome rooted in an unspecified future.

The panel I moderated on the role of colleges, polytechnics and CCTTs featured an excellent discussion by the panelists on these issues. Nobina Robinson, Chief Executive Officer, Polytechnics Canada, Michel Trepanier, Professor, INRS UCS and Institut de recherche sur les PME/UQTR, Niall Wallace, CEO, Infonaut, Inc., and Vanessa Williamson, Executive Director, Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation engaged ideas such as the role incremental innovation, increasing productivity in low technology areas of the economy, the need to facilitate partnerships between academic and industry where the client is the focus and fostering risk and responsibility in our approach to innovation. This perspective on applied research foregrounds the difference between push versus pull research, and a good point was made that in the Canadian R&D scene there is no real voice for the industry partner, particularly small to medium enterprises (SMEs). Bringing this voice to bear is something Polytechnics Canada has been a particularly strong advocate for, and underscores the college applied research mandate of linking the training of highly qualified and skilled personnel (HQSO) to the applied research endeavour as one way to foster greater innovation literacy in the economy writ large.

The audience engagement was interesting given the scope of the questions. We are at a unique juncture in Canada with respect to the engagement of the college applied research layer of the R&D ecosystem, and working together in complementary ways to link basic and applied research with industry and commercial outcomes is an entirely appropriate thing to do given our need to increase innovation, competitiveness, and productivity. To shy away from this is to abrogate our responsibility to the future as entrusted to all of us who receive public money to engage in our work.

Other interesting discussions included an overview of Canada’s Commercialization Challenges by Sorin Cohn, Chief Program Officer, i-Canada, and an excellent review of Trends in Industrial Research: Implications for tech transfer by Ron Freedman, Co-founder, The Impact Group in a luncheon keynote. Freedman's slide deck is online here, and is well worth a read.

Chad Gaffield, President of SSHRC, convened a panel on People Centered Innovations, that sparked interesting discussions relevant to the notion of responsibility and the ability of the education system to respond to the needs of the labour market. I've written before on Gaffield's notion of people centred innovation particularly as this relates to supply and demand for talent in the innovation economy. This is a very important point and highly relevant to what Gaffield termed customer-centric innovation, which is a good link to the recent Roger Martin article on this topic.

The preparation of human capital for the workforce, what Prof Jean Charest of Université de Montréal on the People Centered Innovations panel termed "human capability, is vital to the national economy. To dislocate the academic enterprise from the economy is to endanger the future of our productivity. People are the basis of innovation and entrepreneurship, and innovation is inherently a social activity. The responsibility - or response-ability - that all publicly funded people have is to help prepare the talent for the economy of the future. This includes integrating what I've termed  innovation literacy across academic programs as we engage all HQSP in the R&D enterprise, whether basic or applied.

On the subject of talent and HQSP, SSHRC is currently engaged in a renewal of their Talent Program. The discussion document outlines SSHRC's approach to this renewal, and contains a call to action for all of us engaged in education and research. I encourage everyone so engaged to review the Talent Program Renewal discussion guide and to respond to the questions posed therein. This represents a key moment to influence the future of our innovative capacity, particularly as it relates to people at the centre of the innovation economy. Key elements of the discussion include adopting a more consistent approach to research training across all of SSHRC programs, provisions for multi-institutional (and cross-sectoral) partnerships to support research training, and a range of further modifications and improvements to existing programs of direct support. The deadline for feedback is 15 December. As noted above, we have a responsibility - and an ability to respond - to this call to action. It is important that we do so.

21 November 2011

Policy innovation for an innovation policy

I am writing from Innovation 2011 - the annual conference of ACCT Canada, Canada's R&D Partnership conference. There are many interesting and relevant sessions, including the luncheon keynote by Polytechnics Canada CEO Nobina Robinson. GBC Research partner and CEO of Infonaut Niall Wallace is here to participate in a panel discussion on how colleges and polytechnics can aid industry partners in taking products to market.

Of interest also is an article in today's Globe by Rotman Business School Dean Roger Martin. In "Canada, like Steve Jobs, should zero in on innovation," Martin talks about the need for Canada to focus on innovation, not invention, as a key way to solve our productivity problem. Pointing out that Canada invests more per capita than the US on invention, with little to show for it, Martin makes a good point about how some policy innovation around funding and support for industry to innovate will lead to an innovation policy that puts "the user, rather than the scientist, at the centre of the picture." 

There is very timely advice here from Martin, including that it is time we taught innovation skills in the K-12 education system.

This article follows a good piece in Saturday's Globe business section called "Canada's innovation window of opportunity."  It discusses the Canadian productivity problem, innovation and R&D incentives. The Jenkins panel is cited, as is Jenkins himself who says: "the closer we can get to rewarding the outcome instead of the input, the better." This relates well to the need for us to provide the talent for the innovation economy and to educate industry on the need for productivity and the relationship this has to innovation skills.

The ACCT conference on R&D partnerships is a very timely discourse on the need to work together to link industry to the Canadian education system, and to focus these efforts of providing value for industry first and foremost. An open, participatory approach to innovation where we foster and reward market oriented outcomes will lead the way to a more prosperous Canada. Putting the user first means focusing not on what we do, but on what we can do to support social and economic innovation.

16 November 2011

ACCT Canada's Innovation Partnerships in Montreal next week

ACCT Canada is holding their annual R&D conference in Montreal next week. Innovation 2011 runs from 20-22 November and offers an agenda full of excellent presenters on R&D partnerships in Canada.

14 November 2011

Polytechnics Showcase: Students show their innovation and entrepreneurship skills

The annual Polytechnics Canada Applied Research Showcase was held at Humber College last week, sponsored jointly by BDC. The event featured great presentations from students from each of the member institutes. This is a highlight whereby students from each polytechnic showcase their work with an industry partner and compete for a prize for the best presentation. This year George Brown College student Alecsander Granger took the first prize - congratulations Alecsander!

New this year was a panel discussion of three employers who have hired a polytechnic graduate. Each pair spoke about the role of innovation and entrepreneurship and how the innovation literacy skills learned as part of applied research project work added value to the partner organization. GBC Chef School graduate Geremy Capone, now resident chef at the Electronic Living Lab for Interdisciplinary Survivorship Research, appeared with ELLICSR scientist Dr Sara Urowitz, spoke about the BRUNCH project.

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada Minister Diane Finley attended the conference both days, and presented the students with the awards in addition to giving a lunch time key note address. The text from her speech are available on the HRSDC website.

Day two of the conference featured an SME Summit, whereby industry partners worked with Polytechnics Canada members to shape the coming advocacy agenda.  Michel Bergeron, Vice President, Corporate Relations, Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), kicked off the day outlining the business innovation support that BDC offers. Bergeron in particular discussed how BDC adapted their approach to focus on incremental innovation, versus disruptive innovation, as this was the need expressed by industry. (Also well supported by OECD publications.)

Clair Gartley, Vice President, Business, Innovation and Community Development, Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), Bert van den Berg, Director, Knowledge and Technology Transfer Division, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), and Tom Matulis, Acting Executive Director, Ontario Region, Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) also presented on the various supports their respective programs ofer SMEs. In short, it was an excellent SME survival guide that links the preparation of HQSP with the demands of the innovation economy.

01 November 2011

Investments in research, education and the "dividend of innovation"

There has been a lot of press recently about the state of undergraduate education. A recent article by HEQCO’s Harvey Weingarten on measuring skills attainment and educational efficacy offers timely  input on the issues of growth in demand and quality. The point here is that we need a more focused approach to measuring outputs from the education system in order to ensure we can continue to produce the workforce and citizens the country needs. To avoid this is to side step responsibility for ensuring our future economy can be more innovative and productive. We can look at this as a combination of lagging and leading indicators, and the discussion is also relevant to research.

For example, in today's Globe editorial, there is a brief piece on the role of basic research and its relationship to an unspecified future of serendipitous discovery. While the Globe goes for a soft target to set up its argument, the distinction between basic and targeted - or applied - research is a false dichotomy. The issue here is when the research gets applied. Awards such as the Gairdner and the Nobel prize are important indicators of excellence in science and discovery. These are lagging indicators, as they appear many years after the fact, providing strong evidence of the time lag relationship between basic to applied research. A leading indicator may be the propensity of a funding body to invest in a particular area - whether basic or applied - and the variable response to present conditions in the economy or culture that is producing a need for innovation in the first place. For the latter, any example of R&D into internet technologies - whether for healthcare or consumer demand - is an example. TO think of these two aspects of R&D as polar opposites is counter-productive, yet seductive, especially in a country with a GDP the size of Canada's. For even though we spend more per capita on R&D than most every other country in the OECD, our focus on lagging indicators only betrays a provincialism that is, according to many, responsible for our continued poor productivity and innovation performance.

Kevin Lynch, in an editorial today, makes this point well. Lynch focuses on the need for greater innovation in government, using online media and procurement methods to foster greater Canadian innovation. His point is that we can have austerity and stimulus at the same time if we think differently about the issues at hand. Namely: innovation. In an earlier piece, which I reviewed previously, Lynch and Munir Sheikh discuss their view that "Productivity growth is the dividend produced by innovation." I would add this to the discussion about education and the stimulus of innovation writ large (through targeted investments in R&D, whether basic or applied). That is, our investment in education, and in modernizing our approach to education with a focus on outcomes, enables us to produce a society with relevant skills and resiliency. This resiliency is the ability to transcend opposition thinking, and to apply innovation to issues as Lynch describes. Doing so enables a focus on the complementary ways in which education and innovation can work with the foundations of our excellent basic research infrastructure and to apply what we know and learn into the complex issues and problems facing society today.

The BBC's The Story of Science is perhaps one of the best things I've ever seen on this issue.