By Robert Roach and Todd Hirsch, Globe and Mail, March 29, 2012
Robert Roach is vice-president of research at the Canada West Foundation. Todd Hirsch is a Calgary-based senior economist at ATB Financial. They are co-authors of The Boiling Frog Dilemma.
It’s time we take more responsibility, both as individuals and as companies. If we’re not happy with our productivity, we need to change our attitudes.
The government’s job is to ensure a foundation on which an innovative, creative economy can be built. But we can’t simply wait for politicians to magically make us more innovative with a more generous tax credit or other policy carrot. Ottawa’s multibillion-dollar Scientific Research and Experimental Development tax credit has not been successful, and the Conservative government appears ready to take the axe to it in Thursday’s budget.
New ideas are born only through creativity and innovation; it’s these ideas that will unleash wealth-building potential and prosperity. Yet, there’s a problem. Canada is like a frog placed in a pot of cool water. But the global economy is rapidly heating up the water; if we don’t take action, we’ll end up like the complacent frog that stays in the pot and meets a terrible fate. Too many Canadians have fallen into the rut of waiting for government policy to turn down the heat. And that’s a losing strategy.
It’s possible for Canadians, and the businesses that employ them, to become more creative. But it takes serious practice and enormous effort. Innovation flows from this, and it’s not limited to the self-employed entrepreneur. Every employee in every occupation can benefit from becoming more creative and, if we all do it together, we can become the most innovative economy on the planet.
Canadians need to become more outward looking and cosmopolitan and visible on the world stage. We need to become more comfortable with risk, while learning the difference between risky and reckless. We need to learn that a green economy actually has much in common with the business doctrine of the bottom line.
We also need to learn that ideas don’t flourish in isolation: They emerge in greatest force when we’re in community with each other, rubbing ideas together. This was one of the major conclusions of the Public Policy Forum report Leading Innovation: Insights from Canadian Regions. Canadians are actually pretty clever, but it appears we’re not that great at collaboration. The report recommends more incubators and places to pull ideas together.
It’s up to Canadians to jump out of the pot. Yes, a good public policy structure is helpful, especially on reducing red tape. But not even the most generous government tax credit can make us creative, and we fool ourselves if we think it can.
Like the kid whining for an expensive hockey stick, we have to grow up and do the hard work ourselves. A creative and innovative economy is the key to prospering in a rapidly changing global economy, but it takes practice, determination and personal responsibility. We think Canadians are up to the challenge.
Canadians need to become more outward looking and cosmopolitan and visible on the world stage. We need to become more comfortable with risk, while learning the difference between risky and reckless.
Outward looking, in our view, includes becoming conscious of what is going on the world, the whole world, and Canadians are a singularly insular lot, paying very close attention to the pocketbook, the bank account, the back yard and the immediate environment, but scarcely little attention to the rest of the world, including even and sadly, research in their own field or discipline.
Doctors have to read the journals, in order to know whether or not to increase that dose of Lipitor or not, or to add a dose of Vitamin D or not, based on the latest research from around the world.
Lawyers have to read the case law, and glance over the journals to know about the general trends in their field, but their concentration comes to the fore when they are working on their own case, and the relevant case law for that case, in that jurisdiction....once again, in that jurisdiction.
Teachers, rarely, if ever, in my experience read professional research journals, about what is going on in the rest of the world, in order to be able to implement "best practices" in their own classroom. And what's more, teachers, for the most part, are caring, humanistic and reliable...and certainly not RISK takers, except for the few who venture into the third world, for their adventures in teaching. And risk-taking is one of the last cultural traits sought in new teachers, and especially in administrators for schools. The "establishment" in education is the epitome of stolidity, verging on solidity, and never veering far from the middle of the road.
Kids, as a result, drink in that culture, and take minimal risks, like "going out for the drama club, or the track club, especially if they have never tried in one of those areas. Of course, there are science fairs, in which many parents actually do the major portion of the work, so that their kids will not be embarrassed on the day of competition....Yes, I'm cynical, but that was certainly the case in the seventies and eighties, and probably still is, given the umbrella parenting that seems to have become the norm today.
Those parents might do well to re-read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, in an overt attempt to relinquish their tight grips on their children....the alternative to tight-assed parenting is not "gangs"...it could be imagination, innovation and experiment and some responsible risk-taking.
If the "colour-outside-the-box" muscle has never been used, there is a high likelihood that the first few times it is deployed, there will be some mistakes. And that is why we religiously show that muscle, and those seeking to grow its potential, are treated so shamefully.
It is not only the government grants that we have to ward against, in attempting to develop a national culture of innovation, experiment and risk.
And, our model does not need to be Wall Street of 2008 either.
Regimentation, in our education system serves only the system, certainly not the majority of students, and especially the male students. Compliance, as measure of a student's potential in university, is a reductionism of both the university and those students. Late slips, rigorous detention assignments, most discipline administered in an unimaginative manner, because we must have "control".....and so we sell out the spirit of the school to placate the idol of political correctness.
My best and most enjoyable students were always those who "provoked" my classes with their penetration questions, observations, witticisms, ironic and satiric wit and their sardonic scepticism.
Whenever they permitted themselves to "be real" and "speak their mind" the class became electric, sparkling with energy, engagement and learning....and my role was facilitator and guide. For the most part, I tried to get out of the way of the flow of the argument, the debate, the discussion and the involvement to keep it going.
We need to change our "model" for both teacher education and hiring...from boring and predictable to exciting and unpredictable...and then maybe, just maybe, the innovation that we seek might be able to emerge from the learning cocoons the public pays for, without paying the least attention to whether they are getting their money's worth.
We also need to examine our attitudes to eccentricities and those who demonstrate them. We need to "let up" on our critical parents, our judges and our control freak attitudes....especially when we are speaking with the young. They need to know that eccentricity is not evil; that is not even distasteful.
And perhaps if and when we begin to unwrap our tight fists, we will incubate both innovation and risk-taking....and dramatically reduce the profits of the pharmaceutical companies.
Let's try it...what we're doing now certainly isn't working!