With the federal government getting set to unveil its new innovation strategy in its March 22 budget, a scholarly article on "Canada's Low-Innovation Equilibrium" has asked whether anything short of a crisis can jump-start our efforts to produce the better, smarter products and services we need to keep our economy growing.
The author is Peter Nicholson, one of our brainier Canadians: a physicist, computer-science prof, banker, former Nova Scotia MLA and policy adviser to former Prime Minister Paul Martin. In a highly readable article in the journal Canadian Public Policy, he points out that the business community's generally downstream, "branch-plant" status has enabled Canadians to maintain a prosperous standard of living despite neglecting the necessary business of developing new products and services. That would explain why a century of policy efforts to stimulate innovation have failed.
But we may not be able to coast much longer. Pointing to "transformative" new technologies such as IT, biotech and nanotech, as well as the need for more and benign energy solutions, he publicly asks how long our business and political leaders can keep neglecting innovation.
I do not question Dr. Nicholson's analysis. But he is an intellectual, firmly tied into our academic-government-corporate elite, and I believe he's missing something. Innovation isn't just corporate R&D flowing out of tax policy. Innovation is an attitude. It's a way of looking at all aspects of life around us – problems, constraints, delights and discoveries – and wondering how you can use them to create new and better ideas, processes, products and services.
For most of us, business or individual, the greatest innovations will not spring from laboratory experiments or quantum computing. They come from finding new ways to do things better.
Case in point: two of the best-selling products coming out of the ABC-TV show Shark Tank are as humble as you can imagine. Consider "Scrub Daddy," a smiley-faced scrubbing tool that changes its texture with the temperature of the water you wash with. Inventor Aaron Krause has now built a company around his silly sponge with a portfolio of innovative household products, many sourced from an inventive public.
The other breakthrough: the Simply Fit Board exercise board, developed by a mother and daughter team. The simply curved balance board lets you strengthen your core while doing basic twists and squats. The plastic, neon-coloured boards cost $9 (U.S.) to produce and sell for $40 at Amazon and Wal-mart, a profit margin that enticed investors Kevin O'Leary and Lori Greiner into a bidding war.
I'm not saying that big science and corporate R&D aren't important. But as the politicians and economists argue over policies and incentives, Ottawa must acknowledge that individual Canadians and entrepreneurs have a huge role to play in boosting innovation. Let's find creative ways to turn Canadians into more active, curious, creative thinkers and tinkerers. (Look at how the CBC's Dragons' Den, the precursor to Shark Tank, has stimulated entrepreneurial creativity.)
And let's also remember that to become expert innovators, Canadians must do more than come up with good ideas. They must actively bring them to market – which means learning more about business models, market research, production, finance, selling and marketing. These skills must be taught in schools and inculcated throughout society. The federal government is not responsible for education, but it has many levers it can pull – such as workforce development and corporate incentives to better understand market need and product potential, and sponsorship of national pitch contests – to expose more Canadians to the fun and profit of entrepreneurship and creativity.
Bottom line: Innovation is about asking questions, defying social norms, creative thinking, understanding other people's needs, brainstorming new business models, and learning to be flexible and resourceful when market testing shreds your dreams. These are all apolitical but essential life skills that we will need to prosper in an increasingly competitive world. Innovation is not just for ivory towers, but for kitchen tables, spare bedrooms and garages across the country.
Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of design-driven strategy firm Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. He holds the Institute of Corporate Directors certification (ICD.D). Follow him on Twitter at @90per centRule.