Canada needs a CIO to boost innovation, author says

If Canada wants to be a breeding ground for more highly successful tech start-ups, the country could use a Chief Innovation Officer, according to a U.S.-based innovation expert.

“At a company, without some degree of orchestration, you’ll have disconnected agendas and efforts,” said John Kao, a San Francisco-based consultant and best-selling author, who has advised local and federal governments including Finland, Singapore, and the U.S. on innovation strategies. The innovation guru is in Ottawa this week as part of a Public Policy Forum event aimed at getting private and public sector leaders together to talk about Canada’s standing in the global economy.

He added that while he is not a fan of “big, top-down” policies that control and direct innovation, Canada needs a strong leader to help guide a “holistic and nationally relevant innovation agenda.” For example, while Kao refers to Finland as a “design centre” and the U.S. as a “system integrator,” Canada’s innovation role remains unclear.

To achieve this, Canada also needs to build and grow communities similar to California’s Silicon Valley, which has developed a strong “forgiveness of failure” culture.

“In that area, people don’t start companies because of the incentives,” he said. “Instead, they have a burning desire to make the future happen.”

Kao added that while the ingredients to succeed are already in place, Canada might also benefit from more early stage investors for some of its lofty innovation projects.

Last year, the Conservative government launched a public consultation to get Canadians talking about digital innovation and the economy. A Canada 3.0 Forum in Stratford, Ont. also tackled the subject, bringing together government players and academics to try and find ways to benefit from digital content libraries.

Ottawa-based CATA Alliance CEO John Reid said the policy papers and consultations are effective to help start the dialogue, but he warned the government would have to get into action to help address specific issues like accountability, budget, net neutrality and rural broadband access.

“It’s one thing to set out a digital framework which is part of an innovation nation … but really the measurement of this is how the government can address each of those particular changes you need in the business climate,” Reid said last year.

CATA Alliance has long been a proponent of Canada as an innovation nation. Reid said the creation of a digital nation offers a good context for the consultation but a broader footprint is definitely needed. “Often our success really draws outside of the digital framework,” said Reid.

For Kao, while it is important for Canada to become digitally literate and keep pace with other global markets, changing the culture is perhaps the most crucial area the country needs to tackle.

“If you say you want to increase the country’s productivity by 10 per cent, that is not going to inspire anybody to get up early and achieve that,” he said. Canada needs to develop large scale projects with big societal goals and aspirations to really become an innovative society.



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