Meetings and conferences about innovation in Canada are frequent and considered important, but they are not producing much action. Going in, the participants generally agree that “something needs to be done about the innovation gap…”, “we must get our act together…”, “our productivity continues to slip…”, “we keep dropping in the OECD rankings…”, “we don’t have an innovation policy; we have an invention policy…”, etc., but they generally walk out with no commitment to do anything – except, possibly, to get together again next year. At a typical meeting, they may be welcomed with some eloquent exhortations for change, discuss a few idiosyncratic definitions of innovation, hear a selection of success stories – many from abroad, note the occasional memorable new insight, and come back from break-out sessions with a handful of suggestions for solving the problems and possibly some recommendations that are always addressed to someone else. But these meetings don’t produce the focused, realistic strategies and action plans that could launch necessary change if implemented with a sense of commitment and urgency.
What might be the reasons for this state of affairs? Maybe those whose business it is to lead the required change, namely leaders from government and industry, are not there because they’re too busy, or because other things are more important to them. Maybe such meetings have become too much of a roundup of “the usual suspects” – talking shop and promoting established positions more than constructive planning sessions. Maybe we are still so well off as a nation, with our commodity exports keeping us rich, that the call for more innovation is widely dismissed as “crying wolf”. Maybe all of the above are true to some extent.
However, there might be another reason as well. We don’t discuss innovation very consistently. A visitor from another planet who was fed a steady diet of conferences and reports on innovation in Canada could be forgiven for being utterly confused. He/she/it would have heard that innovation is essential in our society and also that it’s mostly unsuccessful; that it is primarily technological and also that it’s all about people; that it’s driven by excellence in research and also that it’s all about commerce and meeting customers’ needs; that revolutionary innovations are always the goal and also that it’s incremental innovation that really matters; that government support is generous and essential and also that it’s insufficient and misdirected; that innovation is the key to wealth creation and also that it’s mostly a money-losing proposition; that it is the product of effective teams and efficient bureaucracies and also that it depends on the inspired inventor and the imaginative entrepreneur; that it is a supply-side activity and also that it faces big hurdles and produces big benefits on the demand side; that the impacts don’t emerge for decades and also that speed in getting to market is essential; and so on and on. What is a poor alien to believe?