“Canada has benefited enormously from the culture of excellence, rugged individualism, competition and high aspiration celebrated in the United States,” says McGill University Principal Heather Munroe-Blum in this excerpt from a Fulbright Lecture in Boston.
In the new global economy, prosperity and well-being will come from three things — education, education and education — at all levels: primary, secondary and tertiary. As Finland, Singapore and other countries have proven, dramatic gains in education outcomes can be made, and quickly. Canada and the US must not stagnate or decline while the rest of the world gets smarter.
But we need the right type of university education, one that effectively prepares our young people for this new world. University graduates will flourish in an innovation context only if they are equipped with the capacity to create their own knowledge, to be both innovative and entrepreneurial, to have the communication and social skills needed to build teams and networks of diverse people, and the leadership and business skills to manage them.
For today’s students to become tomorrow’s innovators and global network builders, they must have what John Kao, the author of Innovation Nation, calls “cultural intelligence.” Students will require multilingualism, world experiences, experience of and comfort with diverse cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. I’d add to these characteristics the key qualities of empathy and authenticity, which begin very early in life. The combined presence of these qualities will be highly sought after for global leadership. To achieve these, we must move away from international educational experiences as “bubble programs,” where students are sheltered from the character and people of the very places they are visiting. Effective international university programs connect students directly, in collaboration with people in the different cultures and countries they are visiting. We need more programs like Fulbright.
The “back-to-basics” mantra applies to research and scholarship, too. Businesses have become obsessed with the short term. With the emphasis on quarterly results, it can be hard to justify the risks or longer lead times of complex research, development and innovation.
Similarly, our research funding agencies, in an effort to show government sponsors concrete results, are increasingly reluctant to support seemingly risky or “blue-sky” proposals. Critically important is our scholarship studying technology and knowledge domains in the human fields: the social sciences and the humanities receive insufficient funding in North America. But it’s often the very understanding of human considerations and characteristics that leads to the big breakthroughs. What is innovation if not a human breaking of the status quo? As the hockey player Wayne Gretzky said: “You miss 100 percent of the shots that you don’t take.” This is a matter of human motivation, preparation and instinct.
These basics of education and research are as true today as they were in Vannevar Bush’s postwar era. But the character of the innovation story has changed dramatically. Gone is the master narrative of the conveyor belt that carries a new idea in linear fashion from basic research to applied research to development to product. Today’s innovation is a global web, in which ideas and people are in perpetual movement and flux. It’s fundamentally collaborative, multidisciplinary and nimble. While there are many elements in the new innovation story, I’ll focus on three: creativity, knowledge flows and global connectedness.
First, creativity. Innovation is, at its core, a creative endeavour — and I say this as a big believer in “left-brain” concepts of strategy, priorities and direction. There is no step-by-step handbook for creating breakthroughs. This process is as unpredictable as dreaming, and the end result not always obvious. British Prime Minister William Gladstone, then chancellor of the exchequer, is said to have quizzed Michael Faraday, the legendarily inventive 19th-century scientist, on the utility of electromagnetism or another important scientific discovery. (The story varies a little according to the source.) The quick-witted Faraday retorted, “Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it!” As unpredictable as the process of creation is, we can take steps to enhance the probability of a breakthrough. We can refinance our learning and work places to empower people to take risks, to make unexpected connections, to look at problems in entirely new ways, to communicate these hunches or insights, and to be receptive to ideas from others: we can conquer tradition and ego, and still be accountable.
Design agencies, small businesses and innovation hotbeds like Google and, yes, universities, can be role models for innovative processes and businesses. We have common traits: a relatively flat and flexible hierarchy where creation is the goal, an open flow of information and, more and more, creative workspaces and other incentives that foster interaction and communication. What, then, is a university, if not a collection of creative “boutiques” in miniature, where scholarly teams of smart, and increasingly interdisciplinary, independent people are rushing toward the next big idea? Google gives its workers roughly one day a week to pursue their own ideas for the company. About 50 percent of its innovations, including Gmail and Google News, have come from this “20 percent” time.
Innovation is, at its core, a creative endeavour — and I say this as a big believer in “left-brain” concepts of strategy, priorities and direction. There is no step-by-step handbook for creating breakthroughs. This process is as unpredictable as dreaming, and the end result not always obvious.
Second, knowledge flows. Google’s immense creativity stems in part from its strength in sharing knowledge, which is one of the trickiest issues in societies aspiring to become more innovative. How do we make knowledge open enough to promote the free flow of ideas, but managed so as to realize return on investment? How do we promote better interaction amongst universities, government and business, including small and medium-sized enterprises, including family businesses, so that the “creators” and “users” of knowledge communicate and collaborate effectively?
Let me float a few ideas. Newer models of information sharing are clashing with traditional proprietary systems of intellectual property management. McGill law professor Richard Gold of the International Expert Group on Biotechnology, Innovation and Intellectual Property suggests a “new era” of intellectual property (IP) — one that sees IP management best framed as a way to promote knowledge sharing rather than as a means to control and limit knowledge flow.
Achieving the right balance between closed and open IP is a particularly acute problem for some of our key economic sectors, for example, the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. They’re caught in a catch-22. Strong IP protection is framed as the only way to recoup major investment in a necessarily long and costly development process — yet that walling-off of knowledge may be in part the very reason the number of new drugs created in recent years has fallen so dramatically.
At American and Canadian universities, the traditional hallmarks of closed IP — patents, licences, contracts and associated streamed income — have been viewed as a concrete way to monetize the impact of knowledge. But the new innovation era demands expanded notions of “technology transfer,” models that support open innovation. In the traditional model, the university and a company negotiate an agreement covering IP rights in what is often a very long and complex process. Rather than taking endless time to rigorously protect IP, we should focus on how to enable more liberal flows of information between universities and their partners.
What, you might ask, happens in the case of a “windfall” discovery — one that turns out to be highly profitable, such as Gatorade? If the intellectual property isn’t protected, how will the researchers and the universities gain their fair share of the profits? Agreements can cover that situation in a standard “windfall” clause, which would kick in if, and only if, the invention becomes highly profitable. In fact, template agreements could be developed to have essentially three provisions: a windfall clause, the basic protection of students and a guarantee of the right of the investigator to publish. With these, the productivity of collaboration between industry and universities would be dramatically heightened, with resulting intellectual, social and economic benefits.
Rethinking how we manage IP is key, because we’re just not forming the rich mutual partnerships of business, government and universities that our countries need to increase our competitiveness. If patriotism and institutional pride won’t move us to do so, then let’s be blunt: we’re also letting short-term greed get in the way of long-term greed.
Users and creators of knowledge — if that distinction even holds today — are dynamic elements in the process of creation. Such partnership structures are required to encourage “iterative loops” — ongoing feedback among all partners throughout the entire development process. The most successful form of knowledge exchange is often informal interactions — conversations, if you will. This was a key factor in the success of industrial R&D shops at Bell Laboratories and Intel.
Basic researchers, applied researchers and product designers sharing ideas and problems, whether in the same organization or across organizations, often leads to rewarding solutions.
Then, and perhaps most crucial, is building and living global connectedness. In the last few decades, the development of regional clusters, modelled worldwide after the successes of Route 128 or Silicon Valley, have been a cornerstone innovation in economic policy. In Canada’s Science, Technology and Innovation Council’s 2008 State of the Nation report, we noted that “the dynamics of clusters are particularly important to high-tech industries and highly innovative sectors.”
The most effective clusters have seen government, industry and universities working on shared goals in a three-way partnership — what Stanford professor Henry Etzkowitz calls the “triple helix” model — and then applying this on the world stage. Today, building local strength in priority areas is no longer enough. Only clusters that are competitive and connected on the world stage will achieve sustained local benefit. Without these, there is no “recessionproofing” of our local communities. Top research universities are already in the core business of connecting people — through high-profile international collaborations, alumni networks and globe-trotting students. We use our connections to morph clusters into innovation hubs at the centre of global networks. And we can do much more of this.
At McGill, we’ve been working with key partners in Canada and in California to pioneer a new type of large-scale international framework, one that networks government, industry and universities in both locales — a double triple helix, if you will. This Canada-California Strategic Innovation Partnership (CCSIP) is an entrepreneurial collaboration among the three sectors in two innovation-intensive regions. This is not the usual model of researcher-to-researcher collaboration. This partnership creates new models of cooperation and focuses on innovation-intensive fields, such as sustainable energy and bio-imaging technology, which are strengths for both jurisdictions.
This “triple helix” strategy is a promising future model for research partnerships. It takes a proven regional strategy and globalizes it. It uses shared priorities and strengths to quickly identify, and act upon, critical research questions that align with industry and community needs. And perhaps most importantly, it establishes a network of key players — the organizations and people that, when brought together, are most likely to jump-start innovation.
The CCSIP is a model for future international collaborations in general, and, I expect, for future Canada-US partnerships, in particular. I can think of other regions suited to benefit from the double triple helix model: Massachusetts and Quebec, for instance. Look at the incredible similarities. Our innovation centres, Boston and Montreal, have evolved from historic ports to manufacturing bases, and then successfully reinvented themselves by diversifying into knowledge- and technology-intensive industries. The regions share strengths in life sciences, design, information and communications technology, and green technologies, among others. Montreal and Boston run neck-and-neck in staking a claim to the highest number of university students per capita in North America.
Certainly we don’t lack for individual partnerships. For the third edition of McGill’s very successful Crossroads for Biotransfer event, which brings together biotechnology and biopharmaceutical business leaders and the academic community, we played off these shared strengths by partnering with the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center. We’re also seeing McGill spinoff companies — I’m thinking about companies like David Burns’ Molecular Biometrics, of Uri Saragovi’s Mimetogen Pharmaceuticals — open up Boston offices in order to more actively collaborate with the wealth of researchers in the Boston area. These are good starts, but we can greatly increase the probability of innovation and mutual benefit if we connect our shared areas of excellence through a mutually invested double triple helix.
So what can the US and Canada do to create the “new prosperity,” and in so doing, to advance our health and social well-being? I have six recommendations.
6. Canada and the US must commit to a concerted drive to raise university graduation rates to above 45 percent. Let’s bring together our leaders in educational research from across North America to determine the top 10 barriers to obtaining a university degree, and overcome them.
5.Let’s rethink our workplaces so they can be incubators of innovation, flatten bureaucracy and hierarchy and incent and empower individuals to create. One concrete way of kick-starting this would be to place many research master’s and doctoral students out into industries, as many European countries are doing.
4. It’s time to look at better ways to improve flows for knowledge. Let’s re-think intellectual property practices to keep pace with a rapidly changing environment and to ensure innovation is promoted, not stifled. Let’s have universities, governments and industry together eliminate the barriers to successful knowledge exchange. We need to think seriously about how to rework university-industry agreements to free knowledge flows, rather than to constrain them.
3. Let’s turn our clusters into globally connected hubs, building with large-scale, international and intersectoral collaborations like a contemporary multinational “Manhattan Project.” Canada and the US can take a cue from the European Union, which is encouraging collaboration across member countries in a common European Research Area. We might start by getting government, universities and industries in Massachusetts and Quebec to create a second “double triple helix” in two or three areas of promising mutually competitive strength.
2. To protect our quality of life, we require people across our two nations to live the importance of high-quality and cooperative research, education and innovation. And the story of cooperation may be difficult to sell a population conditioned to respond to the “us-versus-them” story. The “us-versus-them” narrative succeeded for the US in driving technological dominance during the Second World War, and during the Cold War, when the American people were shocked out of complacency by the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch. But creating innovation today isn’t an “us-versus-them” process. It’s people, organizations and regions comfortable with “difference,” who value diversity, along with excellence and outreach, working together to create quality and benefit that match with the best of global standards, and sharing in the benefits that are achieved. This story has no bad guy.
1. Let’s reinvest in basic as well as applied research, in the humanities and social sciences, as well as the physical sciences, life sciences and engineering, in a sustained, competitive fashion. We can build on the special strengths that we in North America have — in naturally bringing these disciplines together in our schools and universities — something many other nations are ill equipped to do, because they separate their educational and research institutions along disciplinary lines. Let’s also recognize the vital importance of the medium and long-term view in a short-term world. Funding sports arenas and casinos — at the cost of the humanities and basic research, PhDs and post-docs — does not serve our societies well.
If all of this sounds as if I am worried, or pessimistic, don’t be fooled. I have enormous confidence in the capacity of Canada and the United States, brother and sister if you will, to do what we have always done best — but to do it differently. That is, to succeed on the basis of our strong values, our openness and, indeed, our embracing of different points of view and new ideas.
Canada has benefited enormously from the culture of excellence, rugged individualism, competition and high aspiration celebrated in the United States. We like to think that you have benefited from our internationally connected, multicultural character and open society. The last decades have shown the benefits of both of these and the extraordinary mobility of our citizens across that 49th parallel is evidence of our mutual attractiveness. Let’s now take all the best of what we offer to each other to engage our common values to achieve progress moving forward.