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We can no longer overlook innovation's human dimension

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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

This op-ed was published in The HIll Times on July 4, 2016

Stephen J. Toope, president, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and director, Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

It is reassuring to see the subject of innovation emerge once again in conversations across Canada. As evidenced by the recent announcement by Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger, our world is changing—economically, socially, politically—and our ability to adapt will depend on how well we innovate. Among the announced plans was a commitment to consult broadly with Canadians about the kind of innovation agenda we need in this country. This is encouraging, because right now we’re running the risk of thinking too narrowly about innovation in Canada—precisely when we should be thinking expansively. A rich, inclusive conversation is just what we need.

Recent discussions about innovation in Canada have so far been overly fixated on the creation and commercialization of new technologies. While undeniably important, this component of the innovation picture is not enough to help us make the kinds of changes we need for Canadians to thrive in a 21st century economy. The challenges we face will often require changing human behaviour, based on knowledge of how people live and how they might live better. The scientific journal Nature put it nicely in their 2014 end-of-year editorial: “If you want science to deliver for society, you need to support a capacity to understand that society.”

The federal government has made strengthening Canadian innovation a national priority—a sound agenda in the face of significant global economic shifts. Global supply chains are disrupting traditional manufacturing patterns; a growing global middle class in some countries is raising the demand for services, while growing inequalities stifle demand in others; climate change is forcing us to rethink our energy systems; new migration patterns are changing the ethnic, religious and racial mix in our communities; and new technologies are disrupting traditional industries—from taxis to hotels to the media.

Our challenge is not only to adapt to this era of change, but to take advantage of it in order to create a more prosperous and more equitable world. This will require comprehensive innovation, both in commercial markets and in broader society. And in each of these areas, knowledge of human behaviour, relationships, and institutions will be key.

As any entrepreneur knows, commercializing new technologies requires considerable skill and knowledge in social and artistic areas. Consider, for instance, the design skills required to create appealing consumer products or effective software interfaces; the psychology and communications knowledge needed for effective marketing and well-functioning employee teams; or the language skills and cultural understanding needed to access new local and global markets. Each of these elements is critical for commercial success, and none of them can be addressed by technological innovation alone.

And the importance of human interactions will only grow as our economy becomes more and more focused on services. Service industries now make up more than 70 per cent of Canada’s GDP, and three out of Canada’s top five fastest-growing exports in the past decade were services, according to the Conference Board of Canada.

In fact, we may have been under appreciating the contributions of human-focused innovation for years. A recent report published by the University of Toronto called “Losing Count” argues that Canada has failed to fully account for private-sector spending on research and development in the humanities and social sciences, despite the OECD’s guidelines to include such measures in R&D accounts.

Human-focused innovation will also be critical beyond the world of selling products. For instance, we’ve seen that getting big infrastructure projects built—be they dams, pipelines or subways—presents as many social and political challenges as engineering challenges. We’ve seen that planning resilient communities requires attention to changing local economic pressures, population patterns and environmental realities. We are continually reminded that creating equitable effective workplaces and institutions, as well as a more inclusive economy requires an understanding of the experiences and barriers faced by women, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples and other historically disadvantaged groups.

A quick look at the government’s other policy priorities reveals even more areas where human-focused innovation will be essential for future prosperity. We need new approaches to ensure access to education and training for Aboriginal youth, to make citizen participation a meaningful part of policy development, and to deliver practical child-care solutions across the country—just to name a few examples.

In order to address these important economic, social and policy challenges, we need a more complete understanding of innovation that includes research and insight from all disciplines. To meet the challenges ahead, we’ll need help from a broad range of non-technological innovators, including designers, economists, business managers, political scientists, humanities researchers, psychologists, legal experts and artists. Their crucial contributions must be embraced as we build a new innovation agenda.

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