It's time to Occupy business innovation and research commercialization in Canada.
In response to reports that Canada has slipped badly in global rankings of innovation and research commercialization, the federal government asked industry for ideas on how Canada might fix the problem. The result is the Jenkins Report, which is stirring up some debate in business circles (see Globe & Mail column and comments).
The report offers a number of solutions to the problem of lagging innovation but the main thrust seems to be better targeting and distribution of the billions of dollars we already dole out to businesses every year. Strangely, since I’m more left than right, this has me feeling a little Kevin O’Leary about it all. It smells like tweaking a perpetual government bail out of business.
My point is the report and the debate completely disregard the concerns of the Occupy movement, which is pointing to the same broken business finance system. This disconnect is strange because so many of the business people arguing about improving Canada’s innovation financing are also sympathetic to Occupy, especially the younger startup crowd. But they seem unable to recognize their own power and this unique opportunity to influence both issues at once.
The Occupy movement says big money and corporate power can’t be trusted to run the world anymore. Capitalism, if it ever was a noble beast, has devolved to a rigged game of elite cronyism, manipulation and greed. We’re seeing examples of that in the way so many companies and consultants are gaming government innovation funding now.
Occupy supporters say the metrics used by the financial elite to pick winners and losers ignore everything but money. Aren’t those the same metrics used in the innovation funding game?
And Occupy says if corporations are indeed people, as recognized by the courts, then too many of them are psychopaths. Well, how many fat cats just take government money to pad their bottom line and run without a second thought?
While many old-school business people may sympathize with these Occupy issues, they are fearful that speaking out could cast them as socialists or threaten their jobs. Or jeopardize funding for their startups.
Others, though, are not so fearful of speaking truth to power. Their businesses are being built on ecosystems of social networking. They are broadly supported and connected – constantly sharing not only the cold information of transactions but also their feelings about how the world could become a better place. Being in touch with so many kindred spirits, they are not so easily divided and conquered.
So, here’s the thing: Plans for the future of innovation funding in Canada are being made now. These plans call for more or less of the same old same old. No one discussing these plans is connecting the dots to issues raised by Occupy. If you are a socially-networked business person and you sympathize even a little with the Occupy movement, then you have the power and the opportunity right now to influence Canada’s approach to business innovation.
Trying to understand alternative visions for government innovation, I was browsing through the blog at mises.org, a libertarian-oriented web site. I was inspired to respond to one post that took issue with Canada.
Ideological polarization, I would say, has been less prevalent in Canada than in the States. Yes, perhaps we're complacent about large benign government but, measured by many international metrics of personal well-being, Canadians can see that we're doing better than most, including Americans. And we take some pride in the fact that we have worked together, largely through government, to accomplish that.
Obviously, there's room for quibbling since many of our blessings come from natural resources and a giant protector and customer to the south. But the point is the giant is not invincible and now we are confronted with formidable, new natural and human challenges. Dismantling government, unions and other vehicles for cooperation in the face of those challenges just seems like naive and ineffective ideology.
The really disappointing thing I'm seeing in our current Conservative government is its willingness to arbitrarily abuse its power as if to say "See, this is why government is so bad." Just to make an ideological point. Meanwhile, fearful citizens watching Rome burn with climate change, pollution and global competition, are urged to take sides and dehumanize the enemy.
As a recovering socialist, I'm inclined to agree that government is not a panacea. But, if we're going to abandon it, I certainly want to replace it with something more effective and inspiring than "every man for himself." Sadly, though, instead of looking forward and nurturing new forms of government, businesses and social welfare, people withdraw into comfortable old ways of thinking: it`s either monolithic socialism or a dog-eat-dog free for all.
New technologies and ideas in systems thinking (and spirituality) are providing hope for the idea that our individual happiness and success will be in moving forward, not back.
I suspect, though, that reasonable people will not change their comfortable "us vs them" thinking until the global shit hits the fan. And then it will be too late. Our only hope is with unreasonable people who have the imagination, passion and courage to advocate new ways of thinking and working together.
Business innovation is a hot topic all around the world at the moment. Unfortunately, the heat is restricted to the relatively small circles of players discussing investment, technology and government economic development.
Word has filtered down from academia that businesses, and by extension their host countries, can enjoy increased productivity by investing in research and development for business innovation. The promise is: innovation provides an advantage over competitors, which leads to more jobs, which creates higher living standards.
At the country level, governments are churning out new national programs and tax incentives designed to spur investment in research and development. Canada is no different. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty just released a new budget bristling with these so-called economic levers. As Carol Goar in the Toronto Star points out, though, it's just the same old same old.
"The trouble is, he is following the same course as his predecessors – Michael Wilson, Don Mazankowski, Paul Martin, John Manley and Ralph Goodale – cutting red tape, lowering corporate taxes, handing out research grants, putting money into higher education and subsidizing leading-edge science."
And there's more legislation sure to come. But, just as surely, there is more to come from Canada's competitors too. They are all doing the same things as Canada - the same things that have been tried for years. More and more, the game looks like a futile arms race. Increasingly cash-strapped taxpayers give the wealthy tax breaks, trying to bribe them into risking more of their discretionary cash on the innovators: the entrepreneurs and inventors.
Nevertheless, it all boils down to neanderthal motivation: carrots and sticks. Carrots in the form of R&D tax incentives for business and education subsidies for the public. Sticks in the form of economic predictions of disaster. Well, doing the same thing and expecting different results is insane. At best it will only help us to keep pace with the other nutcases.
Canada ... we need a game changer. Dammit, we need to turn to our families and to our neighbors and beg them to understand this is war.
It`s too important to leave to the politicians and lobbyists. It`s more important than hockey and gold medals, more important than the petty entitlements and comforts of our personal lives, and now that our war in Afghanistan is ending, more important than democracy in distant lands. As Goar concludes in her column,
"Our standard of living is slipping. Our kids won't be able to earn a good living in a static economy. Our country won't thrive unless we raise our game."
Our best hope for a game-raiser is to make the issue personal in our social networking. With social media, each of us today who recognizes the threats and opportunities has a handy weapon to confront the innovation challenge - not by turning to government but by sharing our passion with our friends. Urging them to invest their attention, time and money in the battle. To raise their own game with learning. To forsake consumer credit for business investment. To invest in Canadian innovators. In short, to make sacrifices for Canada.
If we can only find the courage to risk ridicule for being vocal, to honestly reflect on the sustainability of the game and, with that, change our own values, we will eventually outflank our government-addicted competitors. Or perhaps show them a better way and engage them as allies.
At the very least, by engaging our friends and families in open government (as envisioned by David Eaves), we can make the tax incentives and government programs more accountable and effective.
I don't think it is an exaggeration to reframe the innovation issue as a war for Canada's future. However, as far as wars go, this could be a good one.