Thursday, February 2, 2012

Igniting a culture of innovation in frozen Canada

By Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail, February 1, 2012
By one count, the federal government has – count ’em – more than 100 programs, institutes and regional development agencies to support business. That figure doesn’t include an array of tax incentives, the largest of which is the Scientific Research and Experimental Development (SR&ED) tax credit. All together, these business programs cost $6.44-billion in the fiscal year 2010-2011.

Head-scratchers in Ottawa have long wondered about these programs, to which every government wants to add more. They are certainly costly and numerous, but they don’t seem to have achieved the bang for the buck, at least not judging by the amount of innovation they spark. And innovation lies at the core of enhanced productivity.
What perplexes policy-makers further is that for several decades, governments have adopted many of the policies that textbooks suggest should enhance productivity. They’ve run (until recently) intelligent fiscal policies, lowered taxes, tried to reduce regulations, entered into liberalized trade deals, privatized Crown corporations, invested in research and skills training – and yet productivity remains low by international standards.
Just as in reducing the number of high school drop-outs, the job cannot begin with adolescents; it must begin much earlier in order to engender a culture that supports learning among especially young boys who constitute the vast majority of high school drop-outs, so with innovation.
Programs, like mascara to a face, will not generate innovation. Politicians seeking to make a name for themselves, peddling make-up that will seduce business leaders to produce new ideas, new technologies and new ways of doing business are like so much wasted money on advertising when it does not tell the truth.
Truth is....(how presumptuous of this scribe!)...Canadians  have, inhabit and proudly want a culture of resistance to change. We have and embrace a cultural fixation with authority, with accountability, with risk aversion and with, albeit artistic imagination in novels, plays, poetry and even canvas and the dance stage and even the recording studio.
And much of this explosion over the last four or five decades has been funded partly by government and partly by the private sector, especially the banks.
However, just as there is a divide between the wealthy and the poor, there is an even deeper and wider divide between the business community and the artistic community, with respect to innovation. Business thrives on consistency, stability, "no surprises" and "no mistakes"....while spending money on thought provocateurs to stimulate change, innovation and colouring outside the lines.
And it begins in our schools. A little story to illustrate. A friend, a practicing psychologist noticed that his grade one son was bringing home papers with unhappy faces until one day, he brought home a big happy face on his drawing. Not having mentioned the unhappy faces, he asked his son, "What happened?" when the happy face arrived.
"Oh," replied Jeremy, "the teacher did not like me colouring outside the lines, so today I drew my picture and then put the lines around the picture!"
Smart Kid!
Dumb teacher! And even dumber school system that believes those "lines" are more important than the picture.
We need to embrace both change and the opportunity to make it happen. We need to believe that our theology is not a fossilized bunch of rules engraved in some tablets of stone and brought down from a mountain for right and proper living, in order to "purchase the keys to an afterlife in heaven." We need to believe that teaching is not only a "conserving" activity but also a "rebelling" activity; we need to honour the black sheep in our families, lest we become to addicted to our need for perfection that we abandon and effective abort from lack of use, our courage to speak up when we see injustice, our imagination when we see a captivating picture while out driving and need to stop to capture it in a photo, or even attempt to draw it when we return home. We need to accept the eccentricities of our people and that needs to begin very early when we are dressing our children "to look like all the other children" in the piano recital so they will "not stick out".
And we need to enourage those same piano students to try different rhythms and different dynamics when they are learning new pieces in their lessons, so that the "perfect" rendition of the notes and timing is not the only way to"succeed" in playing the piece. And we need to stop insisting on those damn lines around all our pictures, as a function of good parenting, and then of good teaching and then of good theology and then of good medicine and good engineering and especially good accounting.
We need our kids to eat more dirt, and to swing and fall from more trees, and to break a few more teeth when the puck accidentally jumps of an opponent's stick (Oh, I forgot...no one plays hockey without a face mask today!)...and a few more kids attempting to make their own music in their parents garages, and...yes, a few more gadgets like computers in their parents' garages....and a few more of anything they get their vibrant minds around....and we need to take the belts off our tightly wound need for "getting it right" if we truly want a culture on innovation and comfort with risk and individuality and new ideas in order to generate productivity.
And, surprise, surprise, we might just find that God is not just a set of rules that bind our psyches and our spirits...but that S/He celebrates our wildest imaginings with us....how unCanadian would that be?
And the cost will be seen in far fewer prescriptions for depression and for anxiety and for fears unrealized and far less need for alcohol and stimulants.....and the government will not have played much of a role in engendering the change.

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