“Never was anything great achieved without danger.”
― Niccolò Machiavelli
If Canada is going to put in place a growth strategy that will improve the quality of life for Canadians, Government and Canadians are going to need to lose their love of comfort and embrace risk. Failure, as many Communitech members heard from Ray Kurzweil last month, is just another word for experience.
But guess what – it is time to get uncomfortable. It is time to worry less about what will succeed incrementally and do something bold. A great example of this approach comes from a man who has earned the respect of the world for his success and contributions to billions in sales of products and services. Ed Mlavsky, Director of the Israel-U.S. Binational Industrial Research and Development Foundation (BIRD), discussed his experience on the first day of his job:
“For two years, my predecessors wrote detailed plans and strategies but did not start a single project. I told my team to scrap everything and focus solely on getting a few projects off the ground as quickly as possible. After we have some projects, I said, we can crystallize a strategy that has a base in reality.”
In Canada, where we have a clear problem scaling companies up, wouldn’t it make sense to pick a couple of promising companies, invest in what they need and see what happens? What would happen if one becomes a unicorn, and a dozen fail? Would we as Canadians celebrate the success or would we take our political leaders to task for the failures?
That is a dilemma I understand well. I spent close to 10 years working for different cabinet ministers in a number of senior positions. I understand intimately that taking risks with public resources can result in outrage and heads rolling, and appreciate why it seems reasonable to act cautiously. That said, when we look at what is needed to enact a growth strategy that will succeed, and to develop an innovation agenda that will allow Canadian companies to scale up, we cannot accept this course.
The federal government is right now launching a number of processes to gather recommendations aimed at answering the question of how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals will redefine how they support innovation and growth. This exercise is the result of the post-election realization of Trudeau’s team, that the only way to grow the economy is to make Canada a centre of global innovation. In response, they added $1 billion to the 2016 budget with a promise of more to come.
What “more” will look like is now being driven by two principal characters: Dominic Barton and Navdeep Bains. Barton is a McKinsey guy who heads the “Barton Growth Council,” a blue ribbon group of business leaders, economists, academics and investors – including Communitech board member Katherine Barr – who will advise the government. Bains is the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and he has been handed responsibility for the national innovation agenda.
The Barton Council will meet and deliberate before churning out priority recommendations and flagship projects by October. Bains’ process launched today with Science Minister Kristy Duncan and Tourism and Small Business Minister Bardish Chagger. Bains’ process will look at what the government can do to accelerate the impact of innovation on the economy through targeted policy initiatives. It will focus on six key pillars: promoting an entrepreneurial and creative society; supporting global science excellence; building world-leading clusters and partnerships; growing companies and accelerating clean growth; competing in a digital world; and improving ease of doing business.
Other ministries are also thinking about innovation: Transport, Infrastructure and NRCan. Their recommendations will be brought forward and winning ideas are expected to be bolted onto the main recommendations coming from Barton and Bains. This means some proposals will have multiple entry points to win championship.
Canada ranks 22nd in private sector innovation capacity and 26th among OECD countries in R&D spending. Despite the rankings, Canada is poised to build from a position of strength. We have a fantastic ability to invent, a strong financial sector, abundant resources, high education levels and an entrepreneurial culture.
There is real opportunity to position Canada for a strong future and there will be no shortage of ideas presented in Ottawa. Some proposals will tinker on the edges of what is already in place and some will require the government to bet a significant number of chips on a couple of ideas that could take us to the top of the pack.
The unanswered question remains: At the end of the day, when the processes wrap and the final plans are in place, will they be bold and take the necessary risks? The signs look good – Minister Chagger even mentioned the need to take risks during the press conference today.
Words and good intentions aside, collectively we need to help the Government land on the right initiatives to take us where we need to go, and cut them enough slack that they’re not afraid to go for it.