Are Canadians afraid to take risks?

Canada’s ranking as 13th on the global innovation list was addressed at the recent IBM Science & Innovation Summit, a two-day event at the IBM Toronto Lab where researchers and business executives gathered to discuss the state of innovation and R&D in Canada.

Experts from academia, government, health care and the private sector lectured on Canadian innovation strategies, while others presented on topics ranging from high-performance computing to the economics of investing in research to Canada in space.

The summit closed with a “report card” on Canadian innovation, which led into an extended question-and-answer period between a panel of experts and the audience on key problems and potential solutions for raising Canada’s status in the global community.

Canada is not addressing the issue of risk aversion, according to one attendee. “We need to get over the idea that we are not going to invest in something unless it’s a sure thing … the real weak link in the chain has to do with the implementation of commercialization,” he said.

He pointed to the Conference Board of Canada’s innovation score card, which ranked Canada 13th on a list of 17 countries worldwide and gave the country a “D” grade. “It’s not that we don’t come up with great ideas, it’s that we fall down when we try to commercialize [them],” he said.

Summit speakers elaborated on the subject of risk aversion in a roundtable discussion following the event.

“My perception is that Canadian researchers, up until a few years ago, were grossly under funded,” said Don Aldridge, general manager of Research & Life Sciences at IBM Canada. “They are doing a much better job in the last, I’d say, dozen years … but what it’s instilled in many of our researchers is a huge amount of pride in (the fact) they managed to do an incredible amount with so little.”

While it’s true that they have done a lot with very little, if the mindset continues, researchers may not know what to do if they had more, Aldridge warned. There is a fear that, “’I don’t need to ask for a bigger something because I’m not going to get it anyway,’” he said.

“It has always been my impression that Canadian researchers didn’t believe in themselves in the sense that they could be the best in the world,” said Dr. Russ Taylor, professor of astrophysics at the University of Calgary. “That mentality I’ve found all the way up into the funding agencies.”

Taylor referred to what he used to see as a Catch 22 in Canadian research. “You asked for money to do something. They’d say, ‘Well, are the Americans doing it?’ If the answer was yes, ‘Well, let them do it,’ and if the answer was no, ‘Well, it’s not worth doing,’” he said.

“We do have to really get into the culture … that we can be the best and there’s no reason why we can’t be the best and we need to put the pressure into doing that,” Taylor suggested.

Maslow’s aphorism, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail,” illustrates the problem, said Bob Este, business development officer, Institute for Space Imaging Science at the University of Calgary. “If you have a set of preconceptions about how it will all work, you already have a limited view,” he said.

“I think we‘ve got to focus on how we can empower the individual,” said Martin Wildberger, director of the IBM Canada Software Lab and vice-president of the IBM Sensor Solutions. “If you think about it, the compute processing power you have now on your hip is more powerful than some mainframes of yesteryear.”

“The individual is far more empowered today to do much more creative big things … I think the key that we have to do is hold up the right ideals and the right models,” said Wildberger.

Drawing examples from Olympic winners and Canadian hockey stars, Wildberger suggested propagating individual success stories to serve as models for innovation from individuals. “When a Canadian wins an Olympic skating competition, all these other kids wake up and say, ‘I want to be one of those people,’” he said.

Bill St. Arnaud, chief research officer at CANARIE Inc., suggested attracting business to Canada by leveraging the country’s natural resources instead of just exporting them. “We do have a large portion of natural resources, that’s not going to change. What we have to do is be smart about (them),” he said.

“This is about fear and survival,” said Dr. Jai Menon, vice-chair of the IBM Academy of Technology. “Those things are very important to drive innovation, and if we are not innovating enough in Canada, is it because everything is hunky dory or is it because you don’t see the problems?” he asked.

Menon suggested finding a way to “drive the fact that if we don’t innovate, then life is not going to be so good” moving forward. “Other parts of the world are going to take over and life is not going to be so good,” he said.

“If you say risk, you have to say reward, and it’s the balance between the two which is really critical,” said Dr. Bill Pulleyblank, leader of the Center for Business Optimization within IBM Global Services. “People will take great risks for great rewards.”

But the reward does not necessarily have to be financial, he pointed out. “It’s whatever the person values, and in particular, celebrating the success is one thing that some people are really motivated by,” said Pullyblank.

Another balance to keep in mind is “motivate with enable,” said Wildberger. “What is it going to be that’s going to motivate individuals to be innovative, and what do you have to do as a system to enable them to be successful? How do you make sure the right tools, the right processes, the right facilities are there, so that those that are motivated are successful?” 

Current research initiatives highlighted at the summit by IBM include a supercomputer for predicting global climate change from the University of Toronto, a DNA barcoding project at the University of Guelph, ocean science research from the University of Victoria and R&D from the University of Calgary on radio telescopes and optimizing heavy oil production.


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