It takes three to tango

For Canada and Canadians to thrive in a global economy, we need a culture of excellence, innovation and productivity that is the envy of the world. But unfortunately, we lag far behind in one of the fundamentals that would give us that culture – research and development.

The good news is that last year, when Industry Canada unveiled its Innovation Strategy, it set out an exciting and ambitious roadmap that would see us emerge as one of the world’s leading information economies by the year 2010.

It’s an ambitious goal because we are starting from a point at which Canada isn’t even among the world’s top 10 in spending on research and development, and there seems to be no mood among policy makers for dramatic increases in R&D spending. Faced with that reality, clearly the best way to develop knowledge, and a knowledge-based economy, is to encourage public-private partnerships.

Specifically, moving Canadians towards a culture of excellence, innovation and productivity requires a commitment to three-way collaborative research agreements. In fact, I’d argue that such tripartite public-private partnerships are a more effective way to develop commercial knowledge, innovation and productivity gains than a simple massive funding handout would be, as they are more focused on a provably commercial outcome.

While I don’t want to discourage policy makers from boosting R&D spending, which is still a critical piece of the Innovation Strategy, collaborative research is the best way to transfer and generate knowledge. Simply put, Canadian industry, academia and governments must make a concerted effort to engage in greater collaboration if the Canadian economy is to thrive in the 21st century.

Clearly, the IT industry in Canada has a leading role to play in this journey. It is well recognized that this industry is a primary engine of economic growth and a source of substantial Canadian revenue. Industry Canada’s October 2001 data estimate shows revenues in the Information and Communication Technologies Sector in Canada at $122.5 billion, with software and computer services representing almost 23 per cent of this amount, or $28.1 billion.

Fortunately, we already have successful models for engaging in this three-way collaboration, whether it be through government agencies, such as the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) or Communications and Information Technology Ontario (CITO), or through industry-sponsored collaborative models.

In an industry-sponsored collaborative model, industry can take the lead in defining the research program and open its development environments, technology and proprietary software to academic researchers, who, in turn, often benefit from additional government research dollars.

Through this model of collaboration, leading edge technology has been incorporated into IT produced in Canada that is then sold to the worldwide market. It creates jobs for Canadians, promotes Canada as a top research country, and provides opportunities for our leading students and professors to continue their research in Canada.

Three-way collaborative research truly is a win-win-win proposition. Academic partners gain access to “industrial strength” software and technology, and gain experience working with deployed products that solve real customer problems. In short, they are able to operate in a research environment that would be impossible to duplicate outside this collaborative model.

Canadian companies benefit from having first class academic resources focused on accelerating the flow of innovative ideas into commercially viable products. With today’s financial uncertainty in the communications and information technology sectors, collaborative research can help Canadian companies leverage limited R&D dollars as they pilot and create leading-edge technology.

Canadian government agencies see their funding applied to Canadian IT research that keeps top researchers in Canada, and ensures that the next wave of Canadian employees are highly skilled. Their investment in R&D accelerates the flow of innovative ideas, and creates new jobs through the creation of new spinoff companies and new products for existing Canadian IT companies.

Once the collaborative model gets rolling and partners begin to reap tangible benefits from their cooperative efforts, it creates the impetus for even greater collaboration. We’ve got the ball rolling, but to remain competitive we’ve got to get it snowballing. We, as Canadians, must engage in more partnerships – partnerships that tap into the knowledge and expertise within our academic institutions; partnerships that enable our companies to be the first to bring leading-edge products to market; and partnerships that help our governments focus on their innovation agendas.

By delivering continued innovation and productivity through these partnerships with academia and government, the Canadian IT industry can play an important role in forging a bright future for Canadians.

Hershel Harris is the director of the IBM Toronto Software Lab.

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