Photo of graffiti on brick wall saying "Together we create!"
Innovation is more than technology
February 21, 2017

By David Lindsay

Innovation is the word of the moment. Businesses are talking about it. Government is talking about it. And much of our #futuring conversation has been dominated by it. It’s certainly of great importance to our economic future.

The federal government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth argued just this month that “innovation is crucial to addressing the core challenge of maintaining living standards and growing our economic output as the population ages and labour-force growth slows.”

But, as Barry McKenna suggested in a recent Globe and Mail column, innovation is a word that is sometimes easier to muse about than to define, let alone develop policy for.
When we think of innovation, we tend to think of technology — of Silicon Valley and the Toronto-Waterloo corridor, of automated vehicles and supermarkets without cashiers or even self-checkout lines.

What we keep hearing and reading about in our #futuring, however, is that a focus on technological innovation alone won’t deliver the better future we are striving for. The integrated set of challenges we face as a society — which include fostering economic growth but also concerns around the environment, inequality, health care and more — require expansive thinking and collaboration.

If we want to secure a better future, we need comprehensive innovation. That means recognizing that innovation does not necessarily require a new invention or technology. Innovation can occur simply by thinking in a different way, as Richard Gold of McGill University argues. Innovation can also occur by “bringing the past into the present to address our current situation,” as Murray Sinclair phrased it at the 2015 Indigenous Innovation Summit.

While the opportunities unleashed by technology are incredible, technology alone is not innovation. To solve the problems and advance innovative solutions we must also foster collaborative, holistic thought and action. “Finding innovative solutions to real-world problems [cannot] be done anymore by the lone researcher working away in their lab,” Dr. Craig Bennell told the Conference Board in a recent report. “It requires that you bring together all the available talent that you have and apply it to the problems that exist.”

Comprehensive innovation means recognizing, as the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences has argued, that “addressing climate change will require a broad range of innovation in not just our technology, but also our institutions, our behaviours and our relationships with each other and with our environment.” It means paying attention to the concept of integrated innovation that is at the heart of Grand Challenges Canada’s work in global health and calls for “the coordinated application of scientific/technological, social and business innovation to develop solutions to complex challenges.”

We also need to be comprehensive in how we view the process of innovation. The benefits of a new technology can’t be maximized if we don’t create a business case for its implementation, if we as a society don’t adopt it widely. We’ve been hearing about this challenge frequently during our #futuring. It was a topic of conversation at a panel discussion held by the Institute of Competitiveness and Prosperity (ICP), where leaders in health innovation and financial technology spoke about the trouble that Canadian tech companies have growing past a certain threshold. We also read about it in the Conference Board’s innovation report card, in which Ontario got top ranking but scored low on results indicators, suggesting “challenges commercializing and reaping the larger benefits of innovation.”

Comprehensive innovation, then, also means recognizing that innovation requires a focus on invention and adoption in equal measure, a message we heard from Ron Dizy, the Managing Director of the Advanced Energy Centre at MaRS, when we attended a conference on sustainability last month. That means combining forward-thinking technology with the leadership and business acumen necessary to implement it widely.

The good news is that we’re not entirely behind in these efforts. Canadians are great at inventions, as Dominic Barton recently told the CBC while talking about the Economic Growth Council’s recommendations. A recent Thomson Reuters poll listed Canada as the second best country in the world in which to be a social entrepreneur. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranked Canada third in the world for social innovation.

I’m also proud to say that Ontario universities are doing their part as well: A former Facebook exec is starting a new artificial intelligence company in Toronto because of the University of Toronto’s groundbreaking work in that area; an ICP report lauded the work of Lakehead, Laurentian, Nipissing, and Algoma universities for their work “developing productivity-enhancing technologies for the mining industry;” and York University was celebrated in a recent report for putting research into action to increase local participation in the green economy and turn youth shelters into sustainable social enterprises.

But we can’t rest on these accomplishments. There is room to improve and room to continue innovating. So we would love to hear your thoughts about how innovation can contribute to a better future in Ontario. You can share your insights by filling out our survey, or by writing us at insights@ontariosuniversities.ca.


David Lindsay was appointed President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities in January 2016. He is committed to a strong postsecondary education system that advances the contributions of universities for the success of our students, the betterment of our economy, and the vitality of our communities.

Share This