How Elections Determine the Future of Innovation

With the Federal election campaign well underway it is high time we talk about innovation.

Governments are often written off as a potential engine for innovation, but innovation in government is at the core of its future and the future of our country.

“Necessity is the mother of innovation” and in a time of complex social and ecological issues, rising deficits, and where calls to reform the state get louder across the world – innovation has earned its place in this discussion.

There is no better time for this discussion than during an election period. A change in government can mean radical disruption, even a slight shift in the balance of representation can allow for renewed interest and traction on otherwise forgotten initiatives. It also provides an opportunity to reframe, rethink, and reinvent current initiatives.

Ultimately, an election provides us with an opportunity to pick a vision for the future of our country, and by extension decide where resources will be allocated, which often dictates the government’s role in the market.

The current prevailing archetype for government is that of market regulator: offering both oversight and at times, salvation for dying industries and businesses. But governments have done and can do more for the economy.

entrepreneurial-state-368x535 Governments have been unsung risk takers for decades, making significant investments in groundbreaking research, innovations, and businesses. In her book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Private vs. Public Sector Myths, economist Mariana Mazzucato delves into the incredible impact government-funded research has had in innovation as a result of what she refers to as “The Entrepreneurial State.” The State, as she illustrates, uses vision and the financial means to position itself as a market shaper – not fixer.

Government-funded research has created the elements necessary for some of the biggest and most successful products and companies today. Mazzucato cleverly illustrates her point with the iPhone, whose components and features like GPS, the internet, touch screen display, microchips, and more were a direct result of robust government-funding in innovative technologies. Governments were the catalysts that helped fund the building blocks to the modern world.

On January 25 two Toronto teens sent a Lego man into space aboard a homemade weather balloon.

Two Canadians sent a Lego man into space aboard a homemade weather balloon in 2012.

Canadians have much to be proud of when it comes to innovation. Canada was the third nation on earth to travel to space. Canadians have made huge leaps in medical science, including the groundbreaking discovery of insulin. Canada continues to be a robust research and development machine championing public-private partnerships, but work remains to be done to encourage businesses to increase their efforts in research and development.

In Canada, governments contribute 10% of the billions spent on research and development, but they play an important role by providing time and the resources necessary for change to occur.

True change takes time, but it also takes the vision to commit to change. The country is staring down some of the most complex issues ever faced and we need the gusto to face them with a research and development machine that focuses not just on traditional tech inventions, but one that catalyses social and ecological innovation, as well as the intersect between the three.

We are starting to accelerate in this direction. Various levels of government have given bold mandates and government-funding to explore challenges through various task forces and commissions.

A powerful example that comes to mind is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), an important first step to a renewed trcrelationship based on mutual understanding and respect with First Nations, Inuit, and M̩tis people in our country. There was a powerful call to action made by the TRC for different levels of government to work together in order to implement the recommendations in areas like Child Welfare, Education, Health, Justice and more Рall areas in which First Nations, Inuit, and M̩tis people face unique barriers that must be addressed.

Another that comes to mind is the Advisory Panel on Healthcare Innovation, whose mandate was twofold. First, to “Identify the five most promising areas of innovation in Canada and internationally that have the potential to sustainably reduce growth in health spending while leading to improvements in the quality and accessibility of care”. As well as, to “recommend the five ways the federal government could support innovation in the areas identified above.”

Coming out with a report just last month, the Advisory Panel went against its mandate boldly recommending the creation of an annual $1-billion Health Innovation Fund. Their justification was simple; in our system we have been missing “a pool of funds to support change agents as they seek to develop and implement both incremental and disruptive innovations in the organization and delivery of healthcare.” Incredible work to improve delivery of our healthcare system has been accomplished, but there is no way to scale their success. The Innovation Fund would change that.

logo- ecofiscal comLast, but only one of the many examples of work done in the last decade, is the Ecofiscal Commission which although independent of government, aims “to serve policy-makers across the political spectrum, at all levels of government.” Their mandate is to “identify and promote practical fiscal solutions for Canada that spark the innovation required for increased economic and environmental prosperity.” The 12 economists who make up the Advisory Panel released the Commission’s inaugural report, advocating for every province to put a price on carbon.

These reports include the work of leaders across all sectors and fields who sense urgency and a need to act now. As we continue to navigate the longest election since 1926, it is important to bring these conversations into public discourse and encourage all parties to embody the Entrepreneurial State in their platforms. Regardless of the results from October 19, Canada needs a government that will champion catalytic innovation, evidence based decision making, and impact investments that will establish Canada as a leader in green energy, in health innovation, in social innovation, in research and development, and more.