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Regions need to build on their established industries, such as forestry in British Columbia, and design customized innovation strategies to develop thriving ecosystems.Getty Images

From coast to coast, Canada’s regional industries are as diverse as the country’s landscapes, and while some provinces excel in fostering innovation, others lag behind.

Smaller and less populated areas typically struggle with access to business and academic funding, and investment tends to support established industries – automotive, forestry, oil and gas – with little going to innovation strategies, including business research and development, technology adoption, high-tech exports and mobile app development.

As a result, many home-grown ideas don’t make it to the domestic or global market.

According to the Conference Board of Canada’s 2024 Innovation Report Card (IRC), to be released next month, Canada received a “C” for innovation, ranking 15th among 20 peer nations.

The board is an independent non-profit think tank that researches and analyzes economic trends, organizational performance and public policy issues.

We need the innovators to engage … they are the ones who are going to lead us into the future.

Alain Francq, director of innovation, Conference Board of Canada

Canada is also “dead last” in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] for long-term per capita GDP growth, says Alain Francq, director of innovation at the Conference Board of Canada, who calls the IRC report “sobering” and “a call to action.”

“We have a dire need for transformative intervention across multiple facets of the economy – technology, industry, culture, government – to improve our innovation performance,” the report says.

While provincial grades for innovation have not been released, IRC’s 2021 report card gave Ontario and Quebec a “C,” British Columbia, Alberta, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, a “D,” followed by Manitoba, Saskatchewan, PEI and New Brunswick, at “D-” each.

Where we do “punch above our weight,” says Mr. Francq, is in postsecondary education, and a “vibrant spirit of entrepreneurialism” and activity. While Canada’s business and government R&D is “troubling,” higher education is above average level compared to its peers, the report shows.

Dan Breznitz, professor and Munk Chair of Innovation Studies in the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto says in order to reach its full economic potential, Canada needs to recognize and foster regional strengths.

“What you would do [in] northern British Columbia and Vancouver are two completely different things, in terms of innovation,” says Prof. Breznitz, author of the award-winning Innovation in Real Places.

Regions need to build on their established industries and design customized strategies that benefit as many people as possible, he suggests, like growing new industries to create thriving ecosystems for innovation.

British Columbia’s forestry sector, one of the largest in the world, looks very different from a counterpart such as Finland, he explains, which has developed a “huge [number] of industries around forestry and pulp and paper.”

Finland, an early adopter of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT), has digitally transformed its silvicultural services; many of their technologies and equipment are now being used in Canada – a “missed opportunity” for innovation that could have been created here, says Prof. Breznitz.

Another barrier to achieving high growth in scaled-up home-grown businesses is a lack of confidence – the IRC report cites Canada as having one of the highest “fears of failure” (for entrepreneurs) in OECD nations, says Mr. Francq.

Challenges in the intellectual property space, such as securing patents, were also noted as an issue, “because you can’t commercialize what you don’t own,” he says.

To boost regional productivity, the Global Innovation Clusters initiative (formerly Innovation Superclusters Initiative), launched in 2017, was set up to bring large and small companies, researchers and academics, nonprofit organizations, and accelerators and incubators together by sector and region.

The initiative committed to $2-billion over 10 years, matched dollar-for-dollar by industry, with the hope of creating 50,000 jobs and $50-billion in GDP by 2028.

So far, there are five so-called superclusters that focus on a range of sectors: digital technology (British Columbia), bioagriculture (Saskatchewan), advanced manufacturing (Ontario), AI (Quebec), and marine industries (Newfoundland). While the clusters fund projects across the country, they are headquartered in regions that already have a higher concentration of business activity in these sectors.

In Saskatchewan, Protein Industries Canada (PIC) was established to support the commercialization of agricultural products from end to end.

“We’ve invested heavily in digital agriculture, mostly around improving production efficiency and measuring characteristics related to the sustainability and environmental footprint of our crops,” says Bill Greuel, chief executive officer of PIC, which contributes 45 per cent to agtech and other projects.

The PIC also supports ingredient manufacturing, the development of new and novel ingredients from prairie crops, says Mr. Greuel, which has led to “some really exciting innovations around plant-based seafood and plant-based dairy alternatives.”

De-risking downstream innovation and accelerating commercialization are essential to attract regional business and investment in research.

“Regions that have strong innovation activity generate productivity, job creation and growth so that [they] have the capacity to spend [more] on education and health care, infrastructure, and other priorities,” says Mr. Francq.

“We need the innovators to engage … they are the ones who are going to lead us into the future,” he adds. “The provinces are key.”

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