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The race to future-proof the economy: Navdeep Bains on the state of innovation in Canada

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Financial Post | James McLeod | Feb 9, 2019

The Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister gives the Financial Post an early look at Ottawa’s report card on innovation that will be released next week

Navdeep Bains wants Canadians to know that things are happening. Lots of things. The Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister has a big job on his hands, hauling Canada’s economy into the 21st century by embracing artificial intelligence and a panoply of digital technologies to boost productivity and keep us globally competitive.

But the federal government’s innovation agenda is still very much a work in progress. One of its pillars, the five marquee superclusters spaced evenly across the country, is mostly just an idea at this point, although $950 million in funding is beginning to flow. Does Canada feel more innovative than it did four years ago? Are we future-proofing our economy and seizing the jobs of tomorrow?

Bains certainly thinks so and that belief will probably be part of the Liberal’s pitch to voters when the country goes to the polls later this year. Next week, he will release a 100-page government report called Building a Nation of Innovators that mostly serves as a collection of the various policies, programs, plans and funding mechanisms the government has undertaken under the auspices of innovation.

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In advance of the report’s release, Bains sat down with the Financial Post to talk about innovation and the economy.

FP: With the Innovation Nation series we’ve been doing, one of the themes that is emerging is that Canada has a real opportunity to seize the future economy. But we may be missing that opportunity if we’re not really proactive. We could be falling behind. As a country, are we innovative enough?

BAINS: Well, I beg to differ a bit. I think we have turned the corner. I think we are starting to create this culture of innovation in Canada where we have an economy that works for everyone. The key part is that it’s benefiting the many, not just a few, and it’s creating good quality jobs. And we’re really focused on making sure that it’s also inclusive, that it benefits people living in rural Canada, that it benefits young people who are getting coding. That’s really our goal.

FP: In reading through Building a Nation of Innovators it seems like it’s mostly looking back at the last two or three years since the Innovation and Skills Plan. Is this an election (campaign) thing?

BAINS: This is a report back to Canadians. In 2015, we said, look, we realize the economy is struggling. We put forward a plan and said we’re going to invest in a set of policies and programs to really benefit many Canadians and have it work for many Canadians. And so this is a report to Canadians on what those investments look like. What does it mean for Canadians living in Toronto, or if you’re in Red Deer? It’s telling Canadians, we made these investments. We ran on a campaign to invest in Canadians, to invest in their skills, to invest in companies so they can grow. We’re highlighting those in tangible ways in communities across the country.

FP: That does sound like campaigning.

BAINS: No, it’s a report card, because people need to know as a government you made promises, are you living up to those promises? And what does it mean to them, to their communities, for their own prospects and for their kids’ prospects? The speed and scope of change is phenomenal, and that creates anxiety and concerns that Canadians have. And we’re dealing with that and saying, look, we want you to succeed.

FP: How do you manage that pace of change? The people who are losing their jobs at the Oshawa GM plant are not going to start coding iOS apps overnight. How do you make sure people aren’t left behind as you make the shift?

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BAINS: Well, that’s a key part. It’s really about making sure the economy, as I said, works for everyone. We’re promoting lifelong learning. Coding is an example to teach young kids critical skills, problem solving, how to work in teams, understand and develop digital literacy. But we also have programs for individuals mid-career. If there’s a change in their work, they can go to school through a grant, they can go to school with an interest-free loan and get the digital skills that they need.

FP: But do you actually believe that the people who lose their jobs to automation or shifts in global supply chains will take up coding and pursue those kinds of jobs?

BAINS: It’s not about coding only. That’s just one example. We recognize that all these sectors in every region are going through a major transformation. It’s about making sure people have the broad skill sets they need for those job opportunities.

FP: Why is the government’s responsibility so broad in this? It’s striking in reading the Building a Nation of Innovators report that there’s money for fundamental research, incubators, scale-ups, every stage along the way. Why does the government need to be dragging the economy into innovation? Can’t we just get out of the way and let this happen?

BAINS: We’re in a race. We’re competing with other jurisdictions. We want to level the playing field. Do you think China is getting out of the way? You think Europe is getting out of the way? You think the United States is getting out of the way? No, they’re all playing an active role. Why would we take a hands-off approach? The Conservatives clearly presented that as an option in 2015 — that laissez-faire approach. But it’s about creating the conditions of success for Canadians to get more job opportunities and, more importantly, for companies to grow and stay here in Canada.

FP: Something as simple as educating businesses on the importance of intellectual property — teaching them that if you’re going to exist in the 21st century, you need to have intellectual property — seems pretty basic. What do you think it says about the country that we need something like that?

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BAINS: It really is a partnership model. It’s not about us dictating this. It really reflects what we heard from Canadian businesses, academics, researchers, different communities from across the country before we came forward with the Innovation and Skills Plan. Our objective is to really help those businesses understand the value, because for every company that promotes IP, for example, they on average pay 16 per cent more to their workers. For us, it’s about better-quality jobs.

FP: But if the preponderance of our small and medium-sized companies don’t understand IP, if the culture just doesn’t get that, isn’t that a massive problem?

BAINS: That’s the thing we’re trying to accomplish, really create this culture of innovation, saying we want a country full of innovators.

FP: We’ve been looking into the superclusters as part of our Innovation Nation project. They have been in the works for quite a while, but, still, I don’t think a lot of people really know what these things look like. And in a couple cases it’s a bit of a mess …

BAINS: It’s about jobs. It’s a job magnet, and it’s about the jobs of today and the jobs of tomorrow. And really, fundamentally, what did we do? We used our convening power to bring businesses together — large, but primarily a lot of small businesses — breaking down the silos, promoting collaboration and saying, look, work together to solve problems.

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