Leading in the New Normal

By Chris Whitaker and Ginger Grant

Disruption is a term that pops up in almost every discussion about innovation. Yet in Canada, organizations typically reward predictability and control over disruptive innovation. From LinkedIn posts to virtual seminars, the focus of the conversation tends to be on how we can ‘manage’ disruption.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced disruption into our everyday existence. It has normalized the use of new technologies and solutions across the country as businesses and customers adapt to the evolving environment. It has exposed critical vulnerabilities in our social and economic structures and exacerbated systemic inequity and the digital divide.

If there was ever a time to shift the conversation from reacting or ‘managing’ to leading the way forward, it is now.

As a country we get mediocre grades on innovation report cards, recently receiving a “C” in innovation capacity from the Conference Board of Canada. The weaknesses are the same year over year. We are risk averse. We don’t invest enough in research and development. We have good ideas but often fail to implement them. So how do we build capacity so we can lead?

Canada’s polytechnics are a critical piece of the puzzle. Known for our educational approach that combines hands-on learning with career-focused theory and connections to industry, polytechnics sit at the intersection of technology and social innovation, talent and skills development, and applied research and commercialization.

Serving as innovation intermediaries for organizations of all sizes and from all industrial and social sectors, we work with small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on technology adoption to improve their outcomes; help learners develop the skills they need to thrive and adapt; and, connect students and businesses to creatively solve on-the-ground challenges and nurture new ideas.

At Humber’s Barrett Centre for Technology Innovation, and other innovation centres at polytechnics across Canada, we lower barriers for SMEs to adopt new technology and invest in research and development. We provide access and expertise to state-of-the-art facilities, equipment and technical resources.

Polytechnics work with partners in ways that encourage closer collaboration and create alignment with the needs of industry, resulting in outcomes-driven applied research. This industry-academic partnership model strives to understand the breadth of challenges a partner is facing in growing and developing their business. This integrated approach not only helps companies with their technical challenges but also with the development of both their talent pipeline and skilling of their current workforce.

Applied research at polytechnics takes many forms, including product development, process design, technology adoption and proof of concept. Prospective partners identify a business need; we connect them to faculty expertise and student support to respond to those requirements.

Industry partners retain the IP generated through applied research projects, supporting the commercialization of new products, increasing speed-to-market and improving Canada’s global competitiveness. Polytechnics deliver innovation-boosting potential to their partners by providing access to state-of-the-art facilities, future-forward technology and industry-relevant expertise.

Humber is actively reaching out and engaging with Canadian SMEs as part of our ongoing efforts to respond to COVID-19 and stimulate economic recovery. For example, one current collaboration with Toronto-based Mero Technologies involves designing and producing a universal dispenser for soap and hand sanitizer that uses IoT technology to ensure that these products are always stocked. Together we are developing a scalable, repeatable retrofit solution to incorporate sensors into existing hand sanitizer and soap dispensers regardless of the dispenser vendor.

By working with Humber, Mero is able to bring its near market-ready product to market three times faster, contributing to the health and well-being of Canadians sooner.

Applied research is actively creating the products, processes and techniques that address our most pressing social challenges, including pandemic response, an aging population, the climate emergency and sustainable food production. It is how we connect students to businesses and organizations, providing unique learning opportunities, and how we help SMEs grow and prosper.

Whatever the new normal looks like, we will need more of this kind of industry-academic partnership if we want to thrive.

Chris Whitaker is the President of Humber College and past-Chair of Polytechnics Canada.
Ginger Grant is the Associate Dean, Applied Research and Innovation at Humber College.