The Return of Innovation

By Alexandra Apavaloae

In Budget 2021, “A Recovery Plan for Jobs, Growth and Resilience,” the Government of Canada bets big on innovation, research and workforce development as a means to fire up the economy and pull us out of the pandemic. The vision is clear: Canada can become a leader in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biomanufacturing and green technology with the right investments now.

INNOVATION IS MENTIONED in the budget document more than 167 times. While investments north of $100 billion are ground-breaking, the focus on innovation is not. In Budget 2017, the Innovation and Skills Plan was also designed to make Canada a world leader in key sectors. Four years later, what has changed?

As Canada again places its hopes on improved innovation performance to drive growth, it is essential to ensure this year’s plan is pragmatic, within reach of everyday Canadians, and the businesses that employ them.

For everyone to benefit, innovation needs to be accessible, easy to produce, available on the market and affordable for those who drive Canada’s economy — small and midsized employers. This is the domain of applied research.

Applied research is about solving problems, implementing ideas for iterative improvements, developing new-to-market innovations and laying plans for growth. It looks at real-world problems in areas like healthcare, green transition and digital adoption. It focuses on near-to-market commercialization activity rather than discovery research, which has its own place in the innovation ecosystem.

Applied research lays the groundwork for world leadership in virtually any field by identifying its leaders, nurturing their growth and engaging the talent pipeline necessary for expansion.

Consider Canada’s aging population. Rather than view the stresses on the healthcare sector and its workforce as an overwhelming whole, applied research makes it possible to target discrete, solvable problems. For example, communicating with non-verbal dementia, stroke or autistic patients has long been a challenge. At Seneca, students are testing Linggo, a new app with promising results for older adults, improving functional communication and promoting social interactions.

Sustainability is another daunting problem of global significance. Once again, breaking it down to bite-sized chunks is an important way to identify solutions and make industry-level improvements. Saskatchewan Polytechnic, in partnership with universities, Indigenous groups, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the livestock industry, is involved in an interdisciplinary project to conserve the bison population. Combining expertise in reproductive technology, cattle health, genomics, microbiomics and bioinformatics, the project may well generate solutions that can also be applied to an $18 billion dollar cattle industry.

Across sectors, experts have raised alarm bells over delayed technology adoption within Canada’s small and medium enterprises. Polytechnic and college students are ideally positioned to work on applied research projects focused on digital adoption, both boosting business productivity and providing relevant experience to new labour market entrants. But digital adoption doesn’t look the same in every sector or business.

At the British Columbia Institute of Technology, projects encompass everything from the design of nurse scheduling software to search and rescue machine-learning algorithms. Across the country, at Algonquin College, an applied research project sought to address credibility challenges among drone pilots by developing an online social platform that offers profile verification and proof-of-work.

As for Budget 2021, a two-year, $46.9 million investment in the College and Community Innovation Program is an indication that the federal government recognizes the innovation value of partnerships between polytechnics and the private sector. As we work to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and build back stronger than before, this injection stands to be an important way to get businesses and communities back on their feet. That is, innovation worth pursuing — incremental, practical, achievable.

While world leadership in key sectors may well be the ultimate goal, Canada cannot neglect today’s challenges in favour of some future, paradigm-shifting innovation. Growth and productivity will certainly include, and most definitely start, with steps in the right direction.

Alexandra Apavaloae is Policy Analyst at Polytechnics Canada.