At a press conference on Tuesday, Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, held up a stack of reports on innovation policy commissioned by past governments: the Jenkins report, the Nicholson report, and so on. "These reports beside me are a lot. We need to make sure now that we take action," he said.
So what next? "We need fresh ideas," Mr. Bains said. The action Mr. Bains was launching was a new set of consultations.
The Liberals' promised innovation policy is still vague. There's more diagnosis of the problem than prescription of the solution. Mr. Bains hit some smart themes, though most were unformed. But all of it is very, very earnest.
In Justin Trudeau's Ottawa, the Innovation Agenda is a big deal. It is the big economic policy discussion for the Trudeau club that runs the country, from the PM and his closest advisers on down.
Only a few things, like climate-change policy, rival "innovation" for policy fascination. Mr. Trudeau himself is a bit of a science-and-technology geek. As a politician, he describes innovation as a generator of growth and broader opportunity. In a speech in Washington in March, Mr. Trudeau described innovation as one of four pillars of progressive politics, critical to extending economic opportunity.
Canada2020, the progressive think tank headed by Mr. Trudeau's close friend, Tom Pitfield, is launching a series of events this summer to consider innovation, as a concept, and for policy-making. The first one, on the same day as Mr. Bains's launch, included speakers from firms like GE and fast-growing Ottawa-based retail-software firm Shopify. For economic-policy wonks, innovation is the talk of Mr. Trudeau's town.
The Liberals are not wrong about the topic. Innovation is a broad, poorly defined term, but it catches a lot of what matters in modern economies: developing new ideas and products, technological advancement in extracting and processing resources, manufacturing goods, delivering services, and just better ways of doing things from marketing to logistics.
Many of those experts that Mr. Bains cited fretted that Canada is doing poorly at innovation, and that hobbles the country's economic productivity. Business spending on research and development ranks lower than many comparable countries; Canada has a poor record for scaling up fast-growing small companies into bigger, billion-dollar firms. It translates into weak economic-productivity figures, and many warn those will become increasingly telling. Andrei Sulzenko, once a senior official in the department that Mr. Bains now runs, argued that Canada has enjoyed breaks that masked the problem, like a trade boost after the signing of NAFTA in the 1990s, and in the 2000s, a commodity-price boom. Now, innovation will be key to economic growth.
Canadian governments have tried to goose innovation. Jean Chrétien's Liberals had their own innovation agenda, and it had some, but limited, success. Mr. Sulzenko argued governments focused too much on R&D incentives, and not enough on removing barriers to domestic competition. That's not surprising: Governments don't want more competition at home; they want new-economy champions.
Mr. Bains has embraced some policy ideas. One is encouraging industrial clusters, like the tech sector in Waterloo or aerospace sector around Montreal, by encouraging networks among a group of firms, research institutions and government. He argues Canada has to help fast-growing smaller firms scale up into billion-dollar companies, and suggested the government might help by favouring them with public contracts.
But a lot of Mr. Bains's innovation policy is still in the form of questions – and he asked many during his press conference. "Canada ranks 22nd in business spending on R&D," he said. "What would it take for our business to move into the top five?" It made one wonder whom he was asking. After all, he's the Minister of Innovation.
To be fair to Mr. Bains, he deserves a little leeway: This has stumped governments for years. It's good that Mr. Trudeau's government is earnestly delving into a critical policy conundrum with months of think-tank talk. As long as talking about innovation doesn't become the policy, and Mr. Bains eventually answers some of his own questions.