Higher Education Strategy Associates

Innovation Buzzword Bingo

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.

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.

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6 Responses to Innovation Buzzword Bingo

  1. Jim Woodgett says:

    Point 2 caught my eye too. Basically, it is founded on the oft proffered idea that Canada is too small to compete across the board so we should focus on areas of strength. The obvious fallacy in this thinking as applied to science is that we cannot predict what will be a strength in 5 years (or less) and strengths today are not exactly unique nor guarantees of future success. One example is stem cells and regenerative medicine. This is clearly an area of research where Canada has a particularly good record starting with the pioneering work of Jim Till and Bun McCullough in the early 1960’s, but that field is now broad and mainstream – as any successful field should be. The only Nobel Prizes in the area (to date) have been awarded to Japanese, American and British scientists.

    Science is global and no jurisdiction owns any specific area. Moreover, by focusing on todays strengths, we likely forego future opportunities. So what to do? Betting on winners is the idea behind CF-REF. It’s a worthy experiment (and $114 million was invested in a regenerative medicine award at U of T called Medicine By Design). But it should not come at the expense of open competition. There is an argument for both types of research funding but in a prolonged era of constrained budgets, should we prioritize? My feeling is no for the simple reason that science has a remarkably consistent property of surprise. Money is a lubricant and can accelerate discovery and application but we need to seed a hundred or a thousand or million ideas to be able to be sure something truly innovative will emerge – because we are awful at predicting winners.

    There’s another element to this which is what is the optimal size of our science and innovation enterprise? Is it achieved naturally, based on resources available? Or does it need careful management and strategy? We’d like to think the latter, but my gut tells me that there is so much serendipity associated with this convoluted process that efforts to manage entrepreneurial spirit largely fall flat and that successes often happen in spite of imposed structures. Hindsight is 20:20 in innovation and we shouldn’t fool ourselves that we can always build better systems, rather that we should trust science to find its own level and do our best to remove artificial barriers.

  2. Lesley Cormack says:

    Alex. Happy new year! Point 3 is more interesting than you think. There has been a massive change in the last couple of years about immigration regulations for hiring academics and post- docs. Labour market opinions are regularly rejected, including for post docs (aren’t there any Canadian astro-physicists who could do this?). I think the government is going back to a Canadian-first policy, but not saying so in clear terms. You might want to look into this.

    • Alex Usher says:

      Eeeenteresting. Will keep my ears open on this.

    • Jim Woodgett says:

      Agreed. Things have gotten a lot tighter and could get worse with some changes to limits on visas. what’s not clear is whether this is a hang-over from the temporary foreign worker snafus (with Immigration Canada continuing the previous governments policies) or whether this reflects the current government. My feeling is that it will loosen up as awareness of the problems come to a head.

  3. Harvey David says:

    Welcome back! You know, one thing I would like to see you give your keen analytic eye to would be the question of service-related performance in the constitution of faculty contracts. This is something that is rarely if ever measured, and so is a kind of black box. Yes, there is a service component in many faculty contracts, but how many times can an individual send their regrets and have an alternate sent? Does that mean pay is docked? Nope. I truly think faculty associations could better make their case if they were take the proverbial bull by the horns and produce some degree of quantification of service, especially as it can account for between 10-20% of salary. That is fairly significant.

    While I’m here, I also just wanted to recommend some classic reading, if you haven’t read it already. I was going through Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and he has a section dedicated to quality in teaching. What struck me was how some of the same things we are talking about now are as old as the hills!

    Happy new year!

  4. Christine says:

    Point 4 is interesting – Doesn’t the public already get a share in the upside through taxes when the Canadian Foundation for Innovation gives grants or loans to the tech sector? In Finland, Tekes (the funding agency for technology and innovation) estimates that 6-24€ are collected in taxes for every 1€ that they give to the gaming industry. A Tekes funded company called Supercell was the third largest corporate taxpayer in Finland in 2014, so the upside for the public is sizeable without the need for the added drama that would come with government equity.

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