In certain fields of study — anthropology and philosophy, for example — scholars speak of a place of ambiguity and disorientation that occurs when a person or a culture is between one place and another. From the Latin word limen (meaning “a threshold”) comes the phrase “the liminal space.” Arriving at this threshold, established thought processes and traditions may be reversed or dissolved. Future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. Uncertainty can lead to anxiety.

Canada’s economy is in this liminal space. There is a sense of uncertainty — something is going to happen, but no one is sure what it will be or when it will arrive.

Manufacturing sectors are in transition. Depending on the type of statistical measurement used, one could argue both that manufacturing is imploding and that it’s thriving: it really depends on the particular manufacturer in question. The ones that long for the industrial heydays of the 1960s and 1970s, propped up with subsidies and other financial crutches, will be disappointed. But others are getting their groove on by finding a place in the very fast-evolving global chain of production.

Resources — the other major driver of Canada’s economy — also finds itself in interesting times. Prices for most commodities are good and the living is easy, for now. But prices are prone to nasty volatility. And in Canada’s energy sector, the world is watching with increasingly critical environmental eyes. Simply doing more of the same won’t cut it for western Canada’s oil giants in the coming years.

There is hope. To thrive beyond 2020, Canada will need to become the most innovative, creative, entrepreneurial and risk-taking country in the world. It’s no small feat. And if achieving this goal alone is not ambitious enough, add to it one very sobering question: How do you design policy to spark innovation when, in fact, policy alone is incapable of doing the job?

Tax credits and other policy carrots to spur research have had, at best, mediocre results. The federal government is correct to fiddle with the Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax credit because it has not delivered the desired results. Investments in research chairs at major universities have had better success, at least measured by research accomplished. But an inability to commercialize most of these innovations has bedevilled politicians.

The only policy approach with undisputed benefit to our collective creativity and innovation has been investment in post-secondary education, which includes the often-undervalued polytechnics. But here too, as demonstrated by the student protests in Montreal this year, there are shifting sands. Traditional models of funding students and schools are creaking under the strain of fiscal realities. A “more-of-the-same” approach here is both inadequate and naïve.

Policy-makers — and the Canadians who elect them — must come to the unpleasant realization that governments cannot make us creative. They cannot wave a magic policy wand, pour money on a problem and expect lasting results. It is lazy of Canadians to think that governments can.

We need to accept government policies on innovation and creativity for what they are: a starting point. Policy has a place, but it is up to Canadian businesses to take them up on the offer. Imagine if the federal government decided that we were all physically unfit. One policy measure would be to buy us all gym memberships. It doesn’t take a policy expert to understand that a gym membership itself won’t improve our health: we as individuals still have to get off the couch and put in the hard work. The policy can facilitate the process, but it alone is insufficient.

The global economy can be a scary place if you let it be. Everything is shifting, and Canadians are feeling less in control of our own economic outcomes. We are in the liminal space between the economy model that was and the one that is to come. Boosting our innovation and creativity offers a way to prosper in what can be an anxious period. But whatever policies are put in place, Canadians are going to have to do the heavy lifting. Do we want it badly enough?

Photo: Shutterstock

Todd Hirsch
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based senior economist with ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline.

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