Inclusive innovation policy struggles to connect the dots

By Karen Gomez

Note: This article was originally published on the Re$earch Money on January 18, 2017.  It has been cross-posted with permission. 

Over the past 20 years, the Canadian public’s understanding of a successful innovation ecosystem has evolved enormously to include social, technology, science, engineering, mathematics, arts and business innovation. From peacekeeping and palliative care to lacrosse and basketball, settler and Indigenous Canadians innovate from our unique cultures and contexts to solve problems or seize opportunities across sectors. We need look no further than the Governor General’s Innovation Awards to see the changing mindset about what constitutes innovation. As His Excellency told the Globe and Mail (June 9, 2015), besides technology innovation and business innovation, we need social innovation.

Read the summary report here.

Yet the 2016 public policy consultations on Canada’s Innovation Agenda struggled to make the vital connection between our unique innovation strengths, the urgent complexity of contemporary challenges facing Canadians, and the opportunity to define innovation as the integration of STEM, business, arts and social innovation.

In the ISED (Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada) summary report, Innovation for a Better Canada: What You Told Us, there is a terse and high-level evaluation of the innovation ecosystem. It hews to the old mindset, with the important exception of making a strong link between innovation and a greener economy.

Citing a competitive global race for tech and digital growth, the report signalled a doubling down on the mindset of trickle-down economics. From Thomas Piketty to Anthony Atkinson to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett to Robert J. Gordon, we are hearing that this laissez-faire approach to innovation economics and social well-being is failing us.

Innovating innovation

We need to innovate our understanding of innovation. The report fails to recognize that Canadians are transforming the innovation economy into a collaborative culture of cross-sector innovation oriented towards durable solutions to complex challenges and new triple-bottom line market opportunities; where economic value is created from the pursuit of social and environmental value. With this mindset, Canadians are expanding the innovation marketplace and aligning innovation to solve social and environmental challenges.

To read about the incredible work of JumpMath see the case study prepared by Queen’s University and the Trico Charitable Foundation.

Take JUMP Math. “Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies” is an evidence-based numeracy program that challenges both teaching and societal norms by overcoming the assumption that there are natural hierarchies of ability. In 2011, a randomized controlled study led by SickKids Hospital determined that the math knowledge of students taught using JUMP Math grew at twice the rate of students using the incumbent mathematics program. Incorporated as a charity in Canada, in 2015 JUMP Math used multiple revenue streams totalling $4.8 million to cover its $3.99 million in expenses, with most revenue coming from royalty advances and teaching tool sales.

In other words, a charity is leveraging diverse revenue streams to advance a transformational education innovation with a social return on investment (SROI) of $16 for every $1 spent and dramatically improving a cornerstone skillset for innovation and life.

JUMP Math shows how a combination of mindset shift, business model innovation, education innovation, and government cost saving can foster a generation with greater capacity to thrive in daily life and as innovators. JUMP is an example of a social innovation — a durable, scalable and impactful innovation that solves the root cause of a complex social and environmental problem and, in turn, produces economic value. It is also an example of successful entrepreneurship leading to global scale, with program expansion into the US and Europe.

All sectors innovate

Similar social innovations are prolific across Canada, coming from charities, non-profits, businesses and government. In particular, the social sector is leveraging new processes, tools and technologies to develop impact-focused and evidence-based innovations, such as the Insite Safe Injection Site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside or Housing First in Medicine Hat, AB.

Even North America’s largest urban innovation hub, the MaRS Discovery District, runs as a social enterprise with an integrated social innovation stream. As MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht noted in a recent speech at University of Toronto: “In reality, innovation is too often narrowcast. It is not about shiny gadgets and cool self-driving cars, it touches every aspect of our lives and every person in our society. We are all innovators. It is also, humanity’s toolbox — humanity’s only toolbox — for tackling wicked challenges.”

With the OECD reporting that Canada’s social spend exceeded $300 billion in 2015, there is a direct economic case for social innovations that tackle root causes of social problems and hit on economic savings aligned to social or environmental well-being or redirect capital flows to create much higher SROI.

Social innovation is a Canadian strength

Read the Economist Intelligence Report on Social Innovation.

The Economist Intelligence Unit identified Canada in 2016 as the third best country in the world for social innovation. The temptation may be to interpret this ranking as evidence that all is well and stay the course. But in fact, it is intentional cross-sector partnership, community innovation and signalling from the public sector that fuelled this success — and will be critical to scaling it.

While we may be third in the world overall, the world itself is in the early adopter phase of systemically integrating social innovation as a powerful innovation pathway for dealing with the complexity of 21st Century challenges and needs. Canada’s unique opportunity and competitive advantage is to take up the mantle of leadership and advance our social innovation strengths as a cornerstone of Canada’s Innovation Agenda.

Embed social impact in innovation policy

Many of the ingredients to winning the innovation race are in our own homegrown appreciation that innovation is driven by, and can directly lead, to greater social inclusion. Yet we are looking to other jurisdictions as bad role models.

The Munk School has a great newsletter on Innovation Policy in Ontario, register here. Image from the University of Toronto

As Munk Centre for Global Affairs professors Daniel Breznitz and Amos Zehavi note, successful innovation policy in Israel led the country to leap from one of the lowest levels of R&D intensity among developed countries in 1970s to a world leader in R&D intensity. Yet, “in parallel to this success, Israel changed from being the second-most-egalitarian Western society to the second most unequal.” In response, Breznitz and Zehavi call for innovation policies to intentionally address social impact as well as economic growth and competitiveness. This is the opportunity facing Canada now as we design our innovation agenda.

Seize the moment

Integrated innovation is the leading edge of a market disruption that is creating more than economic value. Inclusive innovation is necessary for communities to thrive in the 21st century.

Canada and Canadians will succeed when we clearly align our innovation policies with the range of economic, social, cultural and environmental challenges we face and embrace all expressions of innovation leading on that challenge. We can take advantage of Canadians’ cultural affinities for collaborative working arrangements to bring very diverse innovators together to amplify their impact.

2017 is the moment to seize the assets and capabilities of all sectors, including Canada’s 160,000-strong charity and non-profit sector, as well as the power of passionate amateurs, to ensure innovation is a projet de société.

Innovation: The ultimate team sport

c/o Alison Maxwell

It’s a tall order to make innovation sound compelling these days. Countless companies use the word in their taglines and advertising campaigns. It’s a word thrown up on billboards to sell everything from cars to energy drinks. Yet innovation is more than just something new. As MaRS CEO Ilse Treurnicht explained at the MaRS Global Leadership event in early October, we keep driving to innovate—to create something new andof value—because our future literally depends on it.

The question of value, including what it means and for whom it is created, is an interesting one. Importantly, there is a growing recognition that there are certain challenges—those that are complex and that cross sector domains and national boundaries—that require the creativity and commitment of all of us to solve. This is perhaps the most important task of innovation: to find solutions to complex challenges that will provide value for many.

As Ilse said: “Solutions require coalitions of problem-solvers who coalesce around a shared vision.”

“It is what we value that will align our aspirations and help us build the future we want and the future our children deserve.”

Innovation is no longer the domain of a few. Given the acceleration of change and global pressures today, progress calls for new partnerships. These partnerships must draw on both deep domain expertise and entrepreneurial drive, and must involve all sectors—government, science, academe, industry and community—collaborating together in new and open ways.

It was this knowledge—this awareness that innovation is not a solo exercise, but a team sport—that helped shape the mission and operations of MaRS. Deliberately designed to bridge the public and private spheres and to match capital to entrepreneurs to business development expertise, MaRS also recognized the necessity of creating social value alongside economic prosperity.

Throughout MaRS’ early years, awareness of social innovation was barely on the public radar. However, MaRS Founder Dr. John Evans and Ilse approached Tim Brodhead, then President of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, with a proposal to embed social innovation in the MaRS system DNA as SiG was forming in 2006.

Now, “social innovation is moving into the mainstream, the evidence is everywhere,” says Ilse. And MaRS finds itself at the leading edge of this innovation space. As an innovation incubator that could compare itself with the likes of Boston’s Kendall Square or the East River Science Park in New York, Ilse opts to speak of MaRS as a change agent.

“Now that we finally realize we can’t solve problems alone—that challenges like healthcare costs will not be solved by new drugs and gadgets or cost-cutting measures—we must do things differently,” said Ilse.

That difference involves building unique, collaborative and productive partnerships, and creating spaces that allow many different people to come together to work on the problems we share as a community, as a country and as global citizens.

There has always been a lot of lab talk at MaRS. With a history of medical discovery within the building’s old walls, it’s understandable. However, as Ilse reminded us, there is a particular burden in that legacy and that is about continuing to search, test, prototype and identify qualities and ideas that are capable of positive change in our society, and then to build the coalitions and to work on the hard stuff of partnerships and policy development that will enable the good ideas to scale and have impact.

Watch Ilse deliver “Innovating Innovation,” a presentation delivered in partnership with MaRS Global Leadership and the SiG Inspiring Action for Social Impact Series. Consider the levers for change. How might you be involved in this work?

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