Unleashing an Inclusive Innovation Agenda: SiG speaks with Nathon Gunn, Innovation Advisor to Federal Minister Navdeep Bains

Canada’s innovation ecosystem – from Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) to Export Development Canada (EDC) and accelerators to Scientific Research & Experimental Development (SR&ED) – has primarily been in service to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth and in that vein, focused on STEM-oriented (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) companies. This is however, expanding and shifting. As Canada faces increasingly complex social, ecological and economic challenges, many parts of the innovation ecosystem are also opening up to support innovators and innovations that advance environmental, social and economic wellbeing. In other words, the innovation ecosystem is becoming more inclusive. More inclusive of powerful innovation models currently at the margins of the supports – social, digital, financial – as well as more inclusive around what we are innovating for – for social inclusion, for shared prosperity, and for sustainability.

Minister Navdeep Singh Bains with Nathon Gunn in San Francisco. Photo provided by Nathon Gunn.

Minister Navdeep Singh Bains with Nathon Gunn in San Francisco. Photo provided by Nathon Gunn.

This aspiration is championed by our own Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED), Navdeep Bains – most recently, by calling Canada’s innovation policy plan an “inclusive innovation agenda.”

SiG Fellow, Vinod Rajasekaran, took the opportunity to dive into this vision with Nathon Gunn, Innovation Advisor working with Minister Bains to develop an inclusive innovation policy framework for Canada’s future.

First off, what was compelling about this opportunity for you, Nathon?

I have long been convinced that a balanced and integrated approach to progress is fundamental to human happiness. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development have both demonstrated their commitment to expanding our definition of progress. They understand that innovation includes both social as well as economic advancement. Their term for this concept is inclusive innovation. Their leadership inspired me to come to Ottawa. As a serial entrepreneur with an interest in public policy, I bring real-world, on-the-ground experience in the work that I’m doing to help craft a national innovation strategy for Canada. I also bring a slightly different network of folks to the table.

Why is taking an inclusive approach to innovation important to ISED and Canada’s future?

An inclusive approach is essential because every sector of society — from the business community to universities and colleges, the not-for-profit sector, social entrepreneurs and Indigenous leaders — plays a role in driving innovation, growth and well-being. Government cannot do it alone if Canadians expect meaningful results. That’s especially true at a time when the world is facing major challenges that transcend national borders, such as climate change and prosperity gaps. For example, in the context of building an environmentally sustainable economy, we need to talk about how innovation and conservation go hand in hand rather than being diametrically opposed to each other.

We also need to address prosperity gaps in a world that is changing rapidly. We need to ensure that the benefits of technological advances and globalization are shared by as many people as possible rather than being disproportionately concentrated among the top earners. A thriving middle class isn’t just good for the economy; it’s also good for ensuring that we continue to live in a peaceful country with as few social divisions as possible.

This one

Modern society’s understanding of innovation has evolved considerably over the last century, yet we still grapple with fully enabling and embracing innovation in pursuit of both social and economic advancements. What do you believe has held back inclusive innovation in the past? Do you think this might begin to open up new metrics in addition to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as an example Social Progress Index or the Canadian Index of Wellbeing?

I like to quote Peter Nicholson, a policy advisor to former Prime Minister Paul Martin and a special advisor to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. He says it often boils down to “rational apathy.” What he means is if you don’t have to do something, you often don’t. Rational apathy can account for why change often comes too slowly. However, as we learn to use data to develop more multifaceted insights, we also begin to see the importance of expanding our definition of progress and how to measure it. Issues such as climate change have accelerated the urgency for us to think about economic and social progress in a more expansive way. I think we see more than ever that a whole-of-society approach to tackling big, important issues, such as climate change, needs to be incorporated in our notions of progress. So I believe there is room for other measures of well-being, beyond GDP.

The federal government is shaping its goals around complex challenges, such as climate change, Aboriginal reconciliation, infrastructure, sustainable health care, etc. In many ways, the innovation ecosystem already embraces some of these goals. Clean technology, for example, grew out of the need to move towards a low-carbon economy. What do you think are the next steps that Canada’s innovation ecosystem can take to expand game-changing solutions to such complex challenges?

I am proud to be a part of a government that is working on such important issues and I can tell you that the Minister and his policy team are hard at work on this. Certainly, mission-driven investments where we put money into innovation but with a focus on big problems (think going to the moon or keeping global climate change to our targets) and things like grand challenges (think X-Prize for space) are examples of things we have seen work under the right circumstances here and abroad.

There is emerging evidence that not-for-profits, charities and social enterprises that have an embedded R&D function and practice R&D are seeing more impact gains. Do you believe an inclusive innovation system means also supporting R&D in social mission organizations?

Personally, I do think that is useful. However, it may be largely about helping clear the hurdles to these kinds of R&D initiatives for non-profits. Our government is conducting a summer of public engagement with all Canadians so now is the time for your colleagues to let us know what the barriers and pain points are for this kind of work. We need your prescriptions for how we unlock and facilitate your own activity. Please go to Canada.ca/innovation and make sure you tell us what would benefit Canada the most.


So far 896 ideas have been generated by Canadians. What are your Social Innovation ideas? Image from the Government of Canada.

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About Vinod Rajasekaran

Vinod Rajasekaran is an engineer and cross-sector leader obsessed with improving systems so we can do good better for the next 100 years. He is SiG's Fellow, exploring Social R&D.

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