Morning all. Regular service will pushed back one week to January 10th, but I couldn’t let the Globe op-ed “Southern Ontario Should be an Innovation Cluster, Not a Farm Team” by three Ontario university presidents (McMaster’s Patrick Deane, Toronto’s Meric Gertler, and Waterloo’s Feridun Hamdullahpur) go without comment.
The article reads like someone set out to fill a buzzword bingo card. Words like “supercluster”, “resilient”, “enhancing interaction”, “external connectivity”, “cluster-building infrastructure”, and “entrepreneurship ecosystem” all duly make an appearance; hell, there’s even a reference to Michael Porter. And while none of it is wrong, exactly – clusters are good, infrastructure never hurts, etc. – the six actual policy proposals the presidents lay out in terms of creating an innovation cluster are mighty thin.
1) Invest in organizations that drive local economic development and quality of life, from civically minded governance bodies to cultural institutions.
In what way does this proposal differ from what governments already do? Do governments everywhere not invest in cultural institutions and things that drive local economic development? Are there things governments should stop doing in order to prioritize these things? And how might one distinguish good from bad investments in cultural institutions? When should the spending stop?
2) Co-ordinate investments in research areas with both the highest success rates and strongest growth potential, from regenerative medicine to quantum science; from advanced materials to environmental technologies.
Co-ordinate how? How is “success rate” measured? Or “growth potential”? Is this actually a plea to prioritize CFREF-type programs over granting council funding? Or perhaps it’s a plea for granting councils to become more focussed in their funding? A lot more detail should be here before anyone signs on to this principle.
3) Ensure that our immigration rules make us a destination of choice for high-potential individuals.
I think this is a plea for government to streamline immigration procedures, awkwardly phrased. And, yeah, streamline away. Can’t hurt. But generally speaking, being a destination of choice has more to do with economic opportunities in a country than the state of its entry visa system.
4) Turn taxpayers into equity partners and give the public a share of the upside.
Equity partners in what? New companies? Like Mariana Mazzucato wants? Can anyone name a single successful innovation cluster where this happens? Try to imagine how the public sector would behave if it had an equity stake in companies. Imagine what it would do to pick or favour winners in order to maximize share value. Imagine the pressure to “save” or “bailout” losers. Imagine the chaos that would surround the decision to ever try to sell shares. This is a half-baked nightmare of an idea, one which would effectively impose a form of Peronism on any emerging tech sector. Does anyone truly believe this would make tech companies more successful? Please.
5) Support firms that can scale up by connecting them to successful mentors, addressing gaps in our venture financing systems, and leveraging public procurement strategically.
Can anyone point me to a single study that links firm size to quality or quantity of mentorship? No? OK, then.
6) Inculcate a culture of risk-taking that rewards rather than penalizes failure, which fosters adaptability and learning from mistakes.
Can anyone point me to a single instance anywhere of a government successfully inculcating a culture of risk-taking in business? No? Ok, then.
Like I said before, it’s not so much that these ideas are wrong (well, apart from the taxpayer equity stuff) as that they are painfully unspecific. It’s great that universities are now at least couching their requests for more research funding in the context of an acknowledgement of innovation ecosystems, and not simply relying on the absurd formula of: $ for university research –> Black Box where miracles occur –> Innovation!
But in practice most of these recommendations either are not particularly workable or vague to the point of being unhelpful. Better innovation policy is going to require a lot more than this.