How to bring innovation to the people

September 30, 2002

Brussels, Sep 2002

The word innovation is rather nebulous. The concise Oxford English dictionary defines it as 'bringing in new methods' and highlights that it comes from the Latin 'innovare' which means 'to make new or alter'. It is a vastly overused word now, appearing on everything from car adverts to shampoo bottles.

The Canadian government has set about tackling this problem. If the population does not understand what innovation is and how it impacts on them, how can the government be expected to get the kind of endorsement it needs to spend significant amounts of the public's money on innovation? So the government department of Industry Canada has embarked on a major project to show the public what their idea of innovation is, to answer questions about it, to gain feedback and ultimately to ensure that the public plays as big a role in shaping the country's future innovation priorities as possible. As a working definition, Industry Canada has defined innovation as 'producing goods or services in a more efficient way' but bears in mind the OECD definition of 'the process through which new economic and social benefits are extracted from knowledge.'

In a nutshell, innovation is being presented as simply the best means for Canada to continue to enjoy the current high standard of living it presently enjoys. 'The real driver behind innovation is competition,' says Anne Pigeon, senior policy analyst at Industry Canada. But feedback from citizens is also essential.

'We need to get the message out, then we need to find out what is necessary to get the communities or industry to drive innovation. The idea is to see what their vision is and then what the government can do,' says Stuart Wilson, manager of international science and technology policy marketplace at Industry Canada. To do this, 38 regional events engaging the public have been planned, with half having already taken place. Some 70 industry consultations are also planned. With the option of making submissions online too, Industry Canada expects to receive around 200 submissions.

Then comes the interesting part of reducing this into a formula for a policy. Of the total submissions, the government will attempt to crystallise them into five main priority areas. Each area will have between eight and 10 recommendations. Once this has been done, a meeting of the 'brains of Canada' will take place, where eminent representatives of a broad cross section of population, sectors and activities will discuss how to put words into action. They will include CEOs of leading companies, top academics and representatives of many of Canada's communities.

New innovative approaches are not confined to the federal government in Canada. The university of British Colombia in Vancouver has a dedicated unit of around 35 highly qualified professionals who form a university-industry liaison office, headed by Angus Livingstone. He explains that as well as bringing all the strands of innovation together, flexibility and patience are required. For example, intellectual property rights of the project can change on a project by project basis and Mr Livingstone encourages researchers to expect a seven year wait before proper commercialisation.

'The venture capitalists said that there needed to be more business awareness in science,' says Mr Livingstone, and he is setting up courses to address this. But he emphasises that there should not be a view of seeing research purely in terms of its commercial value. 'The university is not a contract research organisation, so there needs to be some academic satisfaction too,' he says.

This means that, although the university stands to benefit from each successful commercialised research project, he does not see his remit as simply making money for the university. The general criteria for selecting projects are whether they are of benefit to society. Nor is the university afraid of failure. About one quarter of the projects that start the commercialisation process do not end in success, something the university is comfortable with, as leading edge innovation means taking risks.

For further information on Canada's innovation strategy, please consult the following web address: http://www.innovationstrategy.gc.ca

For further information on the university of British Columbia's university-industry liaison office, please consult the following web address: http://www.uilo.ubc.ca

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2001

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