The federal government’s $950-million supercluster initiative — a key plank of Canada’s Innovation and Skills Plan — has been slow to get off the ground. However, a new suite of supercluster projects was announced in January. These investments range from support for Air Canada to integrate artificial intelligence technologies into its operations, to a program aimed at diversifying talent in quantum computing. Collectively, they promise to strengthen Canada’s economy and foster globally competitive companies.
But are we maximizing the public return for these investments?
Certainly, the level of ambition is high. The Innovation and Skills Plan aims to make Canada “one of the most innovative countries in the world.” When launched, the plan included a commitment and expectation that enhancing inclusion would be a central aim. It is opening up opportunities for more people to participate in the innovation economy. However, it is still overwhelmingly focused on conventional metrics, such as R&D spending, scale-up activity, and economic and employment growth. And with the exception of targeted investments in clean tech and accessible technologies, it is largely indifferent to the nature of the firms and innovation outcomes it is supporting.
This plan is important and in many respects inspiring. But to maximize public value, Canada’s innovation investments could be bolder in two respects.
First, innovation policy could go further in simultaneously promoting inclusion and equity alongside economic growth, with the aim of expanding who is participating in shaping and advancing innovation — as entrepreneurs, workers, consumers and citizens — and who is benefiting as a result of innovation activity.
The Innovation and Skills Plan — originally named the Inclusive Innovation Agenda — has not shied away from making this link. It has included dedicated investments to support women entrepreneurs, expand access to digital infrastructure and skills development and develop accessible technologies for people with disabilities. A number of related federal initiatives focused on inclusion and equity — including the Future Skills Centre and the Equality Fund — could reinforce these goals. And progress is being tracked, through the Gender Results Framework as well as the Sustainable Development Goals Data Hub.
A growing number of private sector leaders also acknowledge the link between inclusion and economic growth, suggesting that there is room to push this agenda further. In January, Goldman Sachs announced that it would no longer help companies with all-male, all-white boards go public. Last year, the US Business Roundtable, comprising almost 200 chief executives — including the heads of mainstream giants such as JPMorgan Chase, Apple and Walmart — signed an open letter affirming that economic success is dependent on “inclusive long-term growth” and that the role of corporations includes delivering value to consumers, employees, suppliers and communities, not just shareholders. These moves signal a recognition that inclusion and equity cannot be kept distinct from economic interests — that they are in fact requirements for innovation and growth.
The Innovation and Skills Plan is a start. It is nudging existing systems into new forms and creating specialized programs to jump-start change. But it could go further, to systematically weave inclusion and equity into mainstream innovation policy.
The second opportunity for raising the public return on innovation investments lies in the potential to channel these investments to where innovation is needed most.
Innovation policy has generally remained fixated on increasing job numbers and stimulating growth. These are sensible objectives, but why stop here? Investments in R&D, commercialization, start-ups and scale-ups could be focused on stimulating the development of new companies, products, services and processes that will help to tackle big challenges like climate change or improve the health and well-being of Canadians.
Mariana Mazzucato’s work to advance “mission-oriented” industrial strategies, including through the EU’s recently announced €100-billion mission-oriented research and innovation program, offers an intriguing blueprint. Mazzucato, an Italian-American economist, argues that governments should set challenging and inspiring goals for innovation — such as clearing the oceans of plastic, achieving carbon neutrality in 100 cities or halving the incidence of dementia — and harness the resources and acumen of all sectors to achieve them.
Canada’s Innovation and Skills Plan emphasizes the value of collaboration across sectors. It could be more ambitious about what this collaboration is aiming to achieve.
Maximizing the public return on innovation investments, beyond jobs and growth, is not a simple endeavour, but there are great places to start. Canada’s superclusters are uniquely positioned to channel innovation and economic activity — supported by significant public and private dollars — to where we need it most: to help solve critical social and environmental challenges. They are also uniquely positioned to catalyze inclusive innovation, in particular through the design of retraining pathways, guiding workers from declining jobs to growing ones to meet the demands of clustered companies.
A recent announcement from the BC Digital Technology Supercluster is promising. This group is investing in projects focused on stimulating innovation to respond to health, water management and food security challenges. It is also supporting projects focused on leveraging partnerships between employers, educators and community organizations to diversify talent pipelines and help people navigate workforce disruption.
This is the type of activity that our governments should be requiring, not just enabling, across all innovation investments. Canada needs an innovation agenda that is bullish not only on economic growth but also on how and where we achieve that growth, and what it results in.
Thank you to Nisa Malli and Daniel Munro for informing this piece.
This article is part of the Ensuring inclusive prosperity when all boats aren’t being lifted special feature.
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