Moving beyond invention towards equitable innovation

“Innovation is not invention, and is not only new high-tech gadgets,” said Dan Breznitz, as he kicked off his keynote at the Waterloo Innovation Summit on September 28. It is “the complete process of taking new ideas and devising new or improved products and services.” 

Breznitz is the chair of Innovation Studies at the University of Toronto and author of a new book titled, Innovation in Real Places: Strategies for Prosperity in an Unforgiving World. He joined the Summit on social and economic prosperity in conversation with Waterloo’s President, Dr. Vivek Goel, to discuss the process of innovation and challenge the audience to look at new models of innovation-based growth that enable communities to recognize their own advantages in the global market.

Breznitz told to a virtual crowd of more than 150 that leaders and policymakers often aspire to copy the high-tech model created in Silicon Valley, but not only is Silicon Valley impossible to recreate, it is fraught with inequities. He explained that “the miracle”, or breakthrough idea, is just one stage of the innovation process. It does not on its own drive localized social and economic prosperity because inventions do not create jobs or local re-investment unless they are nurtured and developed further.

The innovation challenge for Canada, said Breznitz, is that we’re very good at invention and research, but we need to move beyond invention to scale prototypes for commercialization.

Reducing barriers to innovation

Dynamic change happens when policy transforms alongside the communities and innovators shaping our nation. The Summit’s panel explored how businesses and governments must do a better job at engaging new voices and reducing barriers if we want to move beyond our current innovation models and champion equity and social impact.

Jacob Glick, vice president of public policy at TELUS and senior executive fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), explained that “innovation isn’t an end goal, but a means to an end” that benefits society. He noted that our current Canadian process is not equitable, particularly when it comes to infrastructure. Rural and Indigenous communities have less access to infrastructure, like broadband and 5G technologies, that are readily available in urban centres. He noted that this is a solvable problem that can be fixed with better policy and planning.

Tabatha Bull, CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, agreed that policies supporting more equitable infrastructure needs to be prioritized. She added that equitable access to financing needs to be addressed. She has seen that Indigenous innovators are far too often viewed as “riskier” from a lender perspective, putting them at a disadvantage.

The panelists discussed how Canadian businesses and governments should prioritize more voices and diverse thinking when it comes to innovation. Bessma Momani, professor at the University of Waterloo and senior fellow at CIGI, said that Canada should “tap into the talent” already within our society. She noted that racialized and immigrant communities bring different perspectives and experiences that challenge our old ways of thinking and spur more innovation.

“Build back better”

As we move through the pandemic, Momani noted that “build back better” has become a global mantra – a recognition that our old models were not working and need to be improved. The great news, she said, is that there is no shortage of good ideas or talent in Canada, but we do need political will and social protection policies to make meaningful economic change.

The pandemic has shown us just how resilient and innovative we are when faced with a global challenge. It has also shined a spotlight on the issues and inequities in our society that can no longer be ignored. The conversations at the Waterloo Innovation Summit have articulated how we can change our innovation models to be more equitable and prosperous. Industries and governments must embrace new perspectives and policies that support innovation that improves the quality of life for all Canadians. 

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