The council offered an old lament: that Canadian companies rely excessively on U.S. innovation. They are content either to play an upstream role (extracting resources) or as subidiaries of foreign companies. Too many Canadian businesses settle, the council reported, for a "profitable low-innovation equilibrium" (a fancy way of saying second-best) that conditions Canadian business's behaviour and ambitions.
The other day, I cam across a fantastic tool called The Little Black Book of Scams - a fraud awareness booklet designed in a user-friendly way, released by the Canadian government. Fantastic idea, I thought - for all the feds' talk about being "tough on crime" there isn't much being done on prevention. That they would take the trouble to innovate something new and proactive rather than preventative was a good sign.
Then I opened the cover.
"The Little Black Book of Scams was originally developed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission", wrote Melanie Aitken, Canada's Commissioner of Competition.
It's hardly the first time the Canadian Government has borrowed from Australia. In fact, we are constantly borrowing innovations from other jurisdictions; we've turned it into an art. While countries like the US and Australia are pursuing new, risky, potentially amazing ideas, Canada is about incrementalism at best and at worst, stagnation. "This too shall pass" has become our rallying cry in the face of diversity, be it economic or social tensions. Government focuses on walling off troubles lapping at our shores rather than harnessing troubled waters to spin the wheels of inspiration.
Why should it be otherwise? For much of our history, it's been true. Canada hasn't seen real conflict on our home soil for generations. We've had a grand total of one political assassination in our nation's history. The FLQ crisis was a tame affair compared to, say, Northern Ireland. As a nation we are blessed with abundant natural resources which less-blessed nations needs to build the things they innovate; if the approach ain't broken, why should we fix it?
Peace, order and good government is our rationale - there's no need to be innovative, thank you very much - the boat's sailing just fine the way it is so please don't rock it. Government and in general, the Private Sector have made an art out of justifying the status quo in the name of fiscal prudence.
I have see this same theme play out from all sectors; structural change gets discussed in academic terms at conference with a demand for bold ideas and vision-oriented leadership but when people return to their boardrooms, the focus changes to "Do we really need to change" and "What proven models out there can we crib from so as not to assume any risk ourselves?"
Everyone talks about grabbing the low-hanging fruit; nobody talks about personally reaching higher.
The problem is, the folks in charge are deluding themselves, falling victim to their own scams. The system we have is floundering; the boat has already sprung leaks. Natural resource extraction isn't proving to be the panacea it was promised to be and what we do have is proving to have consequences beyond what was advertized.
For all our talk of weathering economic storms, more and more Canadians are falling behind and becoming disengaged. Instead of innovating new solutions, Canadian companies are instead focused on cutting corners, chipping away at whatever competitive advantage they had.
Faced with this reality, we have politicians boastfully presenting plans to lower our standard of living to make Canada more cost-competitive, with value-add being ignored entirely. The general theme is that we don't need to adapt to a changed modern reality - if we can just step back in time and recreate what we had a half-century ago, everything will be fine.
I don't think so, Tim - you can never go back to before. The times have changed and to stay competitive, to perhaps even lead the way, Canada must start thinking differently. We must start acting creatively.
The good news is, this is already happening - just not where we expect it to. While government tinkers at the margins of policy and far too many Private Sector players are mired in their comfort zone, there are innovative, proactive firms doing things differently. Their practices might not have long track records, but so far they seem to be doing pretty well. The reason for this unprecedented success is hardly a surprise - these firms have done their homework and are using the latest understanding of what motivates cognitive labour (both productivity and innovation) developed in other fields to their advantage, creating new opportunities in the process.
Instead of employing the success-oriented, blinders-on focus that is supposed to be the determinant for success, they are embracing failure as learning opportunities and looking laterally for inspiration.
Therein lies the great irony - we have this expectation that money and power are the great motivators for success. In a way, this is true - the most competitive people will generally rise to the top, often on the backs of others. That doesn't mean they're creative, just forceful. But competition isn't about creation - that's a different process requiring different incentives. Some of the most creative people don't do sales well, as the emphasis on selling what they have would detract from their ability to push their ideas even further.
The people government is trying to motivate in the Private Sector (and the Private Sector is trying to motivate in government) are social laggards when it comes to innovation - they're too comfortable to be bothered. Therefore, all the tax breaks, speeches and advocacy are being pointed in the wrong direction and in the wrong manner.
The most innovative people in this country (and there are a lot of them) aren't all about money and power; profit has become a means, not an end. The truly revolutionary ideas on how to design things differently (everything from our education model to the way we design public spaces) are working with the people who don't have lots of money to pay for their services.
It's not that Canada as a whole has settled, only that our Established Class, the ones with the lion's share of the resources have. It's why they're content to support tough-on-crime measures and tax breaks, because they're reactive against someone else rather than involving proactive action on their part. The social entrepreneurs, on the other hand, seek out the marginalized communities in our midst and in working with them are innovating the structural solutions we so desperately need.
Canada is a rich country blessed with everything we need to succeed; financial resources and business acumen at the highest levels of society and a diverse, innovative group of social entrepreneurs working at the grassroots level.
The elite don't need to innovate themselves, nor must they continue to rely on imported ideas; truly, that's the approach that failed civilizations have employed throughout history. All that is required is for someone to bridge the gap between the different elements of society so that there is a healthy exchange of funds at the top for ideas generated at ground-level.
This catalyst can come in the form of the burning platform effect, or it can be caused by someone putting a stone in the soup; one way or another, though, it will happen.
It is uncertain whether any incentive plan to stimulate the growth of domestic technology and innovation, or to make corporations expand aggressively into foreign markets, can achieve significant success when it is applied to companies in which the drive to do these things has not already been forced to emerge because of exposure to a real stimulus from the economic environment. What we seem to need in Canada re "small catastrophes".
- Business Quarterly 37 (4); 1972