Being Innovative About Innovation

Canada’s federal government released its 2017 budget last week – and the word of the day was “innovation”. By one estimate, “innovation” is mentioned more than 200 times in the 278-page budget document. And there’s lots of money available for innovation too: more than $8.2 billion directed toward various programs around skill and product development.

But despite the numerous mentions of “innovation” in the budget document, it’s difficult to find a clear explanation of how the federal government defines that term.  The government is right that workplaces are changing, and that workers and employers need to adapt to changes that affect their industries. But from looking at what the government is actually funding, it appears that the government is defining “innovation” mostly in relation to developing new technology, particularly around inventions that can be patented or commercialized. And much of the funding around “innovation” is devoted to creating conditions in which technology-based development can happen: for example, supporting “superclusters” of researchers and entrepreneurs to encourage business development in technology-related industries, or funding programs that teach kids how to code.

But let’s step back and look at this for a minute. In a broader sense, “innovation” is anything that helps a task or a process to be done differently – and, ideally, to be done more efficiently or productively. If someone is trying to dig a hole in the ground by using their hands, to them a shovel is an “innovation”. So positioning something as “innovation” primarily when it involves computerized technology is unduly restrictive – especially when not all Canadians have reliable access to computers or the Internet.

What innovation looks like, according to Canada’s federal government. (credit:

But, more fundamentally, innovation needs people. People have to come up with the ideas, or identify the problems that need to be solved. So what if, instead of funding computer-focused innovations, there was funding for programs that help people be secure enough to be innovate? Someone going from job to job in precarious work arrangements, or working at a minimum-wage job without much prospect for improvement, or crippled financially by student loan debt, or dealing with housing insecurity, will likely be consumed with getting from one day to the next. They won’t have the energy, the knowledge, or the opportunity to dream up the next app or the next Internet-based product.

Here are some examples of programs that are innovative and that would lay the groundwork for more Canadians to be more innovative. A guaranteed minimum income plan would give people basic financial security, and make it more feasible for them to explore options like education to improve their opportunities. Services like furniture banks can help people live more comfortably and inexpensively, which helps them direct more resources toward improving their work situation or their personal lives.  A poverty reduction strategy would help create healthier living environments for children, and that could increase their educational opportunities and their creative thinking. Workplace preparation and support programs like this help people get knowledge and equipment they might not have access to, and which can help open up possibilities they wouldn’t otherwise be aware of.

If innovation is really going to make a difference in Canadians’ lives and well-being, it’s wrong to define “innovation” simply in terms of commercialized product development or working with computers.  Those narrow boundaries limit who participates in or benefits from innovation, and limit what innovation is or where it can happen. A broader perspective on “innovation” and how it can be encouraged will result in more innovation and better innovation – and part of that bigger thinking is supporting not just the innovation process itself, but also supporting programs that help people be secure enough to also be innovative.  It may be difficult to quantify how much innovation these kinds of support programs might generate, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have an effect.  It can only be an improvement if people are able to direct their energies toward thinking creatively instead of thinking about how to survive.

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