Wicked ecological and social challenges force us to rethink innovation policy

By Tim Draimin

Senior Advisor at the McConnell Foundation and former Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG) National. This article was originally published by Re$earch Money. It has been republished here with the publisher’s permission.


Humankind has always tended to focus on the upsides of new discoveries and innovations, but the past year has put our optimism to the test. Social media was exploited to undermine US democracy and to incite sectarian violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya. A rogue scientist in China edited the genes of human embryos, opening the door to a dangerous new era of genetic manipulation. Notable tech luminaries have been issuing warnings about the potential misuses of artificial intelligence, even as the technology progresses rapidly. And the dramatic warnings contained within the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offered a stark reminder of what it means to have mortgaged societal progress to carbon emissions.

As we tally up the socio-economic implications of innovation, there is growing recognition that technology’s gains are primarily accruing to the wealthy. Recent research in both the UK and North America shows that the strongest innovation centres are becoming the most unequal urban areas. Ryerson University’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship recently reported that “the pursuit of innovation at all costs can widen inequalities and benefit some while leaving others behind.”

Innovation thought-leader Azeem Azhar succinctly summarized the challenge in Exponential View: “Our framework for evaluating what is worthwhile innovation needs to change. There are now bigger, more meaningful opportunities to rebuild the infrastructure of the economy …  such as blockchain, quantum computing, clean tech & health tech.”

Crossing The Chasm…of Policy

New global social and environmental imperatives are beginning to shift the mainstream Canadian mindset and policy planning. But while recent federal innovation policy increasingly references “inclusive innovation,” our default is to continue offering broad support for innovation ecosystems and innovators that will generate only trickle-down benefits for society. As the C.D. Howe Institute’s Daniel Schwanen has argued, Canada “has shied away from linking innovation policy more directly to important technical, economic or social needs still in search of solutions, or even to connecting government science programs more effectively to public needs.”

If society wants innovation to tackle major challenges and wicked problems, we need to proactively shape innovation policy to accomplish those goals. However, Canadian public policy discourse lags behind its international peers for building the targeted 21st century policy instruments our circumstances require.

There is much we can learn from the more focused and applied perspective being debated in Europe. For example, in 2017 the European Community commissioned innovation economist Mariana Mazzucato to explore new innovation approaches, and last year they published her report: MISSIONS – Mission-Oriented Research & Innovation in the European Union: A problem-solving approach to fuel innovation-led growth. “The ability of innovation to spur economic growth has long been recognized,”  Mazzucato argued. “Less recognized is the fact that innovation has not only a rate but also a direction. By harnessing the directionality of innovation, we also harness the power of research and innovation to achieve wider social and policy aims as well as economic goals. Therefore, we can have innovation-led growth that is also more sustainable and equitable.”

Mazzucato presents the case for innovation policy to be constructed with a focus on specific goals around which innovation players and resources can be appropriately aligned, supported with policy instruments. Innovation policy also needs to involve key stakeholders who help decide what challenges should be addressed and which concrete missions will help solve those challenges, Mazzucato wrote.

Mazzucato’s recommendations received broad endorsement from stakeholders. In May, the European Commission announced a proposed policy framework for the next €100 billion EU research and innovation programme that includes research and innovation missions “with bold, ambitious goals and strong European added value,” such as clean transport or plastic-free oceans.

Others are adopting this mission-based approach. In 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May announced four missions for UK research and innovation: AI and Data; Ageing Society; Clean Growth; and Future of Mobility.

Canada’s innovation policy: The supertanker starts to change course

Canada has not yet adopted a comprehensive mission-oriented approach, but it has initiated several important milestone experiments. One is Grand Challenges Canada (GCC), which has received over $300 million in development assistance.  GCC tackles developing-world health problems using innovation methodologies that include social innovation.

A second milestone is the establishment, inside the Privy Council Office, of the Impact and Innovation Unit (IIU), which “is driving a shift in the way the Government of Canada uses new policy and program tools to help address complex public policy challenges.” A third landmark is Budget 2017’s $2.3 billion to support clean technology and $950 million for five innovation superclusters. Another is the November 2018 Economic Update announcement of $805 million for social finance, which would allow investors to partner with social innovators to solve Canada’s toughest social challenges.

We need robust public participation in the debate about this important policy shift. Nesta, the UK innovation foundation, has proposed fundamental questions that will help us frame the innovation policy we need: Who benefits? Who participates? Who decides? And do the aims involve more than economic growth? These are the kinds of questions we should be asking of any innovation policy, because Canada urgently needs to re-tool how we grow and deploy all our innovations assets, if we are to thrive throughout the 21st century.