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In Ottawa, innovation is just a word in search of meaning

The coming budget is an opportunity for Ottawa to start getting its policies right in order to shape its innovation strategy.

The Trudeau government is obsessed with innovation.

It may not have fully embraced the concept yet, but it sure loves the word.

The first clue was the renaming of the venerable Industry department. It's now called Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. While "industry" suggests smokestacks and assembly lines, "innovation" conjures up images of self-driving cars or genetically engineered immune cells instead of blast furnaces.

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If productivity was the government's fixation in the 1990s and competitiveness in the early 2000s, innovation is the mantra du jour.

Virtually everything the government does is conveniently slotted into this narrative, whether it belongs there or not. That includes announcements this week as diverse as the $372-million loan to Bombardier to a planned overhaul of the language translation bureau to "embrace innovation, adopt leading-edge practices, and recruit the best in class."

For Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, the term has become a mirror of the country's broad economic and social ambitions. "At its most basic, innovation is about making things better in ways that benefit everyone: better jobs, better opportunities, better health, better living standards and a better future," he explained in a speech last December.

Innovation has come to mean virtually anything anyone wants. In Ottawa, it's a word in search of a definition, and a clear strategy.

The hundreds of interest groups seeking to influence the government's second budget, expected in the coming weeks, are more than happy to put their own spin on innovation. The words "innovation" or "innovative" appear at least 2,262 times in 400-plus prebudget submissions collected by the finance committee.

The vast majority of groups clearly got the message: If you want to get Ottawa's attention, just say the word. Some, such as the University of Waterloo – a natural, given its tech focus – took the innovation theme to the max, using the words innovation and innovative more than 50 times in a seven-page brief. "The University of Waterloo is committed to working with the federal government … to address the gaps that currently exist in Canada's innovation ecosystem and help build the culture of innovation needed to thrive in the global economy."

But even groups as diverse as dental hygienists, art galleries and beer makers are determined not to be left behind in the innovation race, carefully framing their pet policies to fit Ottawa's chosen storyline. Beer Canada, for example, is pushing for a 13.5-per-cent cut in the federal excise tax on beer and a new compositional standard for the beverage that would allow more flexibility on ingredients – all in the name of fostering the industry's "expansion and innovation goals."

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The problem is that the government does not have a coherent innovation strategy. Not yet, anyway. Last year's budget talked about a new science, technology and innovation strategy, but so far details are sketchy.

The federal government talks a good line, but the country continues to have an innovation deficit. And the to-do list is long and daunting. Canada lags badly on some of the key measures of innovation. Distressingly, Canada ranks 26th among developed countries in business spending on research and development. In spite of decades of reviews and generous incentives, business R&D spending is still declining.

The coming budget is an opportunity for Ottawa to start getting its policies right. A good starting point would be to spell out what outcomes the government wants from its innovation strategy – clear and measurable targets. Then, it should spell out what it intends to do to help Canada get there, adding new programs where there are obvious gaps.

It will also mean putting real money on the table. Canada is being outspent and outmanoeuvred by its trading partners.

Until Ottawa does all that, innovation will just be little more than a soothing, but overused buzzword.

Bombardier's Global 7000 is getting $250-million in funds from the federal government to help with its research and development
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