24, May 2022
Innovation Policy in Canada.
Canada is ranked poorly for innovation in most international comparisons. For example, it is ranked #16 globally in the WIPO Global Innovation Index, 6th of the seven G7 countries.
A recent book1 casts interesting light on this. It is a rare example of a non-partisan look at innovation policy in Canada at the provincial level. It has a chapter for each province and the territories and is written by 20 mostly academics from across Canada (including me). The value of a book like this is that it doesn’t provide “the answer” to Canada’s innovation problem but it documents approaches taken recently, assesses what worked and what didn’t and stimulates further discussion.
Here are some of the topics that caught my attention from the Chapter on “Conclusions and Lessons Learned”:
- Canada’s innovation performance. The authors describe the conundrum that while Canada has numerous advantages, including a stable political situation, well-educated population, broad socio-economic advantages such as multiculturalism, a merit-based immigration system, broad social safety nets and good social mobility, etc., and yet it performs poorly on innovation. Companies underperform on R&D spending, companies are not scaling, entrepreneurs tend to move to other jurisdictions, and so on.
- Evaluation of policies. One of the biggest weaknesses in the Canadian policy system is the almost complete absence of structured evaluation of any policy ideas. The authors note that there are established methods that exist around the world (for example, the Maryland Scientific Methods Scale) to support policymakers in delivering evidence-based policies. The provincial chapters show no evidence of any substantive assessments of programs to support innovation.
- Natural experiments among provinces. The authors note that provinces have powers over many of the drivers of innovation, so comparing the performance of different Provinces – reflecting the different political differences and dynamics across the county – is a natural experiment to determine what works best. It is one of the aims of the book to document this. This can be seen as one of the advantages of a federal structure in Canada.
- Drawbacks of the federal structure. The authors note that as powers influencing innovation are very diffuse across Canada not much happens unless two or three levels of government are aligned. Generally, the federal government sets the agenda, and the provinces and territories selectively respond. This makes it hard to get support for Canada wide efforts.
- Diffuse focus. A review showed more than ninety program streams to support business innovation, across twenty different federal organizations. Each province also has numerous support programs, so overall there are a vast number of support programs across the country, which spreads the support very thinly.
- Broad-based support. The authors note that there is reluctance among provincial governments to pick winners, and as a result most support programs fall back on offering general support to whichever firms can access their programming. This leads to efforts that are more incremental than transformative.
- Big bets can pay off. One example of a sustained long-term effort to support innovation citied in the book is AOSTRA (The Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority) that led to the development of the Alberta oil sands and made a material contribution to the Canadian economy. This was led by the provincial government. Other examples include ocean industries in the Atlantic region, digital industries in New Brunswick and PEI, aerospace and transportation in Quebec, and agri-food in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
- SME focus. The authors note that Canada’s private sector is dominated by SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises) and that many large companies are foreign owned. This explains why many innovation programs are aimed at SMEs and startups, and why success stories are usually about small businesses doing well, while reports of innovation among Ontario’s branch plant auto industry are seldom heard.
- Bias towards technological innovation. The book notes that Canadian innovation support programs have a strong bias towards technological innovation at both the federal and provincial levels. “The evidence that a science and technology focused research funding strategy will generate innovation in a predictable fashion is slim to none.” This bias has a couple of consequences. 1. It mainly focuses on cities, and ignores rural areas and the territories, leaving out 98% of Canada’s geography and 40% of its people and 2. it neglects the voluntary, cultural and creative sectors that generated $169.2 billion in 2017, 8.5% of the GDP.
- Impact of resource industries. Despite the strong orientation of policy towards SMEs, the authors note that adoption of innovation by large resource based forms generated most of the improvements. This is not surprising, as a 1% increase in productivity in a $5 billion company has more impact than a 100% increase in a 30 person startup.
- Challenge of implementation. While provinces and territories recognize the need to create the conditions that lead to innovation driven economic growth, their ability to implement policies and programs has been more challenging. Part of the reason for this, as the authors note, is the relatively low staffing levels of innovation specialists with sufficient experience and expertise in provincial governments.
- Role of Universities. The authors note that universities, often seen as a significant source of ideas that lead to commercialization, are not evaluated provincially or federally in a way that would account for their net economic contribution. Contributions of universities are often overestimated. Research at universities costs about $13 billion a year but generate less than $75 million annually in commercial technology transfer activity.
- Institutional gaps. The authors identify a number of institutional gaps in Canada with their recommendations:
- Raise Canada’s research and development effort. This would require support at both federal and provincial levels.
- Develop more targeted and sustained innovation efforts. These have been demonstrated to generate successful results, e.g. AOSTRA, mentioned above.
- Improve threat identification and hazard mitigation that can produce dual use technologies for civilian security and defence applications.
- Focus more on digitalization. This has been described by former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge as an “absolute imperative”. It is an area where Canada has lagged behind other countries.
- Avoid misalignment between federal and provincial innovation policies, particularly for energy and climate.
If any of this strikes a chord with you get a copy of the book to learn more.
- “Ideas, Institutions and Interests” – The Drivers of Canadian Provincial Science, Technology and Innovation Policy – Edited by Peter Phillips and David Castle, University of Toronto Press, 2022, 398 pages.