Bilal Khan is managing director of One Eleven, a technology accelerator in Toronto.
The federal Liberals recently announced their first budget in more than a decade, with innovation being a cornerstone of their economic platform. The budget promises to spend $800-million over four years to support innovation clusters and networks across the country, beginning with $150-million in the next fiscal year. The government held off from rushing out an innovation agenda, instead opting to give pause to ensure a thoughtful process before they put together a plan expected to be announced in the fall.
These are encouraging signs that show this government is committed to developing a strong innovation policy. It shows the Liberals understand that this piece of public policy could shape Canada's economy in profound ways over the next few decades.
The rhetoric and intent may be right at this point, but there is a risk looming: In an effort to get it right, the government could become paralyzed, leaving programs and policies to calcify. A successful innovation agenda will be no easy task to develop, as it requires a fundamental reorientation of government, its risk-taking capacity and its willingness to take a good, hard look at legacy programs and make difficult decisions about what has been working well, needs tweaking or needs to be wholly upended.
While the budget outlines resources to this innovation agenda, we need to be careful not to simply throw money at the problem and expect it to fix itself. For far too long, governments of all stripes have spent billions of tax dollars on infrastructure and science and technology funding under the guise of it being an innovation strategy. While there have been immense societal benefits from these investments, they have not successfully reoriented the Canadian economy for the realities of the 21st-century global economy. The development of this innovation strategy needs to focus on the commercialization of technology through all actors in the ecosystem, especially high-growth-potential private-sector partners, and needs to be clear about the outcomes it would like to achieve.
This government will also need to recognize that there are inherent limitations in their ability to develop and execute this agenda. Unlike other pieces of public policy, the government must be comfortable with getting it wrong – and it must sensitize Canadians that getting it wrong is part of a necessary process. This policy needs the ability to evolve, to be nimble, to pivot when it hits a roadblock, to scale up parts that are working well and to write off parts that are not. These are all hallmarks of successful startup businesses, but they challenge the risk-adverse nature of Canada's public sector.
The biggest mistake we can make in developing this policy is to spend years trying to figure it all out, launching numerous consultations, a fierce political debate and then a full, comprehensive manifesto that claims to be the definitive road to success. It doesn't work that way in the innovation economy. The technologically advanced world we live in today moves with great velocity and inordinate amounts of uncertainty. Our government needs to think differently about building an innovation policy – one that's forward-thinking, that doesn't rely on our past to predict our future, but most importantly that is capable of evolving with time. We need them to focus squarely on managing risk, not avoiding it.
The nature of innovation requires our policy-makers to make a bold prediction about how our economy and society will develop in the longer-term. But predictions are difficult to make. Our best hope for developing a successful innovation policy is one that recognizes that we need a framework that is flexible and malleable, one that predicts what the future might look like but recognizes there will be parts of that prediction that are flat-out wrong and others that are pretty close, and then adapt accordingly.
We can do this by testing policies and measuring outcomes before going full launch. The outputs of these tests will tell us which policies are working and which ones need to be tweaked. Some will have to be abandoned altogether, and that's okay. But through this process of rigorous testing and data-driven decision-making, we will continuously learn about building a strong, made-in-Canada, globally competitive innovation policy.
We're living in unprecedented times, yet still live in a governance structure predicated on precedent as its primary means of governing. Our legislators are reacting. Our regulators are risk-averse. Our courts are developing judgments on precedent to decisions fundamentally different from today's economic reality. And our collective society is unaware and unprepared. We're building an economy on policies that do not at all reflect the present reality, let alone paving a way for what our future will look like.
An incrementally successful innovation agenda does not come without perils. There will be collateral damage. We will have to deal with the moral and ethical implications of these advancements, challenges around the lack of distribution in society. The privacy implications of a digital economy will continue to percolate. If we let an innovation agenda reign free without thoughtful, broader policy apparatus adjusting for new economic realities, it has the potential to do harm to society. However, if approached with a progressive, forward-thinking outlook, we have the potential to benefit, both economically and socially.
Canada has many of the ingredients necessary to become a global leader in the development and commercialization of some of the world's most advanced technological innovations. But without a lean and agile public-policy framework to guide their growth and adoption, and by extension our national economy, we risk being left behind and slowly frittering away our quality of life.