Skip to main content

Everything sounds better if you stick the word "super" before it, right? Thus, Canada is not merely getting federally supported innovation clusters, but "superclusters." How exciting!

Well, maybe. Ottawa has giddily announced it will spend $950-million over the next five years supporting five such clusters – in which government, academia and business will work together to develop technologies and bring them to market. But, as is frequently the case when government inserts itself in the marketplace, the difficulties arise not from the idea but from its execution.

For instance, the clusters align too neatly with the Liberal electoral base (sorry Alberta), which casts doubt about whether they were the best choices.

As well, it's not clear the federal financial contribution, which must be matched by private funding within each group, is enough to support Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains' contention that the clusters will create 50,000 jobs. The amounts are huge in terms of taxpayer contributions, but they are small in venture-capital terms.

Plus, there are few details about how Ottawa will monitor the program, and what the standards are for success.

The five clusters Ottawa selected – artificial intelligence in Quebec, the ocean sector in Atlantic Canada, advanced manufacturing in Ontario, vegetable proteins in Saskatchewan and digital technology in British Columbia – make a reasonable amount of sense. Canada is a legume superpower, so why not press our advantage?

And Mr. Bains is said to be influenced by the theories of London-based economist Mariana Mazzacuto, who has persuasively argued against the notions that state intervention stifles innovation and that free markets are the only solution.

But buzzy words can't hide the fact there is always a risk when governments pick and choose industries to favour. Canadians should be, well, super-dubious.

Interact with The Globe