Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Innovation in Canada

Today I had the privelege of attending a breakfast talk given by the new chancellor of Queen's University, Charles Baillie, former Chairman and CEO of TD Bank. The topic was competitiveness, innovation and leadership, with the basic premise being that we (Canadians) need to be innovative to succeed in the global economy and an important key to that is increased funding for universities and colleges. It was definitely a privelege to be in town long enough that I could go to the first such alumni event in over 9 years.

Chancellor Baillie brought up a number of interesting facts:

-Ontario is bottom of the barrel for per capita university funding in Canada; this is shocking to me given all the leading colleges and universities in our province

-We have as many PhD's in Ontario today as we did in 1991; this is also somewhat irksome given we have 1 million more people today than we did back then although as someone doing their graduate work in 1998-2000, I can tell you that it was better to be innovative in the private sector than in academia during that time so in part, I am not surprised

My major area of disagreement with the Chancellor is that increased funding to universities alone will make a difference. In particular, I would ask all Canadians the following question:

Do we want to be leaders in innovation vs followers, and if so - in what (area) do we want to be leaders?

I was in India recently and it is clear by virtue of their resulting industry, their national innovation policy, and the movement of IT jobs worldwide to India that they aimed to be, and now are, leaders in IT Services. Most people in Technology in Europe and the US know this about India.

I can point to other examples like Ireland, and their progress in IT over the last 20 years; Finland and their leadership in mobile communications; a new example is the US and their commitment to nanotechnology through a $3B federal program.

It clearly takes more than the public sector to advocate, support and establish innovation leadership. Public and Private alike need to work hand in hand to reach such lofty goals, but I would suggest that first, we need a mutually shared direction.

Answering the first question is easy. We want to be support innovation and be among the most innovative countries on the planet. Answering the next question is harder- What do we want to be leaders in? I can think of a few possibilities - communications, advanced materials, altnerative energy but I don't see us taking the bull by the horns in any one. What I do see, is that we are apt to be a nation of followers in every category and a lot of that comes back to our national attitude. I think pointing to scale and the size of our economy is just an excuse especially when you look at the situations in both Finland and Ireland.

We have a leadership defecit in this country, and an attitude that it's just ok to be number 2, or 3, or 15. From my perspective, that is just unacceptable given the great talent, natural resources and quality of life in Canada. I believe it's time for some new leadership - new talent - to emerge on the Canadian scene, and that we have to set a national innovation agenda that has some teeth. It all starts with attitude. If we think we're always going to be number 15 at something, guess where we are going to end up?