So, earlier this month, federal Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains wrote an op-ed in the Toronto Star which lays out, as clearly as possible, where the current government’s thinking is with respect to Innovation policy. Some of it is good, but some of it is dreck.
Let’s start with the good stuff :
“Innovation is fundamental to our continued growth and job creation, and it’s impossible to predict where and how disruption will happen. It can be in a start-up garage in Vancouver, a mine in Saskatoon, or a fishery in Saint John.”
Ok, so the mining in Saskatoon reference is a little odd (there’s exactly one mine in the city, a salt mine which straddles the city limits) , but that aside the Minister seems to understand that innovation (that is, the act of creating new business processes so as to add value) is something that needs to happen economy-wide. And it’s something that needs to be bred into companies’ DNA. So far, so good.
What’s a bit disturbing, though, is how quickly Bains goes from “this is something everybody needs to do” to “we’re going to be great in digital! We’re going to invest in cleantech!” and other forms of highly sector-specific boosterism. Now, I get that governments want to be seen as leading us all towards the industries of the future and reaping the political rewards of said leadership, but man there is some serious cognitive dissonance at work here. You can’t simultaneously believe that innovation policy is an economy-wide thing and then start babbling about how you plan to plough money into specific sectors.
Bains seems to have difficulty distinguishing between “innovation policy” and “innovation sectors”. There is a difference. Innovation policy, as Dan Breznitz underlines here, should focus on helping new technologies and business models flourish. By definition, this policy has to be economy-wide, because these new technologies and models don’t exist yet. “Innovation sectors” is a jargon-y term (used much more in Canada than elsewhere if Google is any guide) meaning roughly “sectors which attract a lot of venture capital”, or in practical terms: ICT, cleantech and biotech.
To be fair, Bains isn’t alone: most governments in Canada have this problem. This is why so many of their innovation policies are scarcely more than “Digital! Cleantech! Woo!” And there’s nothing wrong (in principle) with in trying to promote digital or cleantech sectors. But we have to come clean that doing so is industrial policy, not innovation policy. Similarly, Science policy is not innovation policy. Neither is growth policy, and neither are policies promoting entrepreneurship. They all feed on one another. They all (in theory) can complement one another, but they are different. And if you confuse them the result will be bad policy.
Like I said, pretty much everyone starts their innovation policy with “Digital! Cleantech! Woo!” And universities and colleges are complicit in this because that’s the easiest way for them to get their hooks into whatever flood of money is going to come out of government when innovation talk gets going. But the mark of good innovation policy is the extent to which it transcends this kind of simplistic formula. Here’s hoping the Liberals figure out how to do this in the next few months.