Former GG David Johnston on why Canadian innovation is worth celebrating

The first annual Canadian Innovation Week concluded on May 31, wrapping the Rideau Hall Foundation’s inaugural effort to inspire the next generation and make Canada the most innovative country in the world.

The week’s events were anchored around the Governor General’s Innovation Awards on May 23. The awards commend trailblazers and creators that have made a positive impact on the quality of life in Canada. We had a chance to speak with the Right Honourable David Johnston, the 28th Governor General of Canada and the Chair of the Rideau Hall Foundation about the new effort and why Canadians should be proud of innovation in this country. Why does innovation deserve to be celebrated?

David Johnston: Well innovation is simply making things better, doing things better, and having that culture of doing things better, and it includes not just technological innovation, but business innovation and social innovation. And if you have an attitude of doing things better, you’re just increasing the quality of life for your neighbors and your neighbor’s neighbors and ultimately for your country.

ITB: Do you think that celebrating innovation has positive economic benefits?

DJ: Yeah, I think that it’s a good start. I think that we are too shy in Canada and not celebrating our innovators enough. But you don’t celebrate them just to give people a pat on the back. You celebrate them to put a spotlight on their work and to encourage others to develop that habit of mind, that culture of innovation to say, ‘Gee. I can do this too. Maybe not the particular innovation, but I can approach whatever it is I’m doing: my work, my community, my family, my society, with an attitude of, ‘Okay, this is going well, but how are we do it better?” or ‘gee, this isn’t going quite as well as it should. Let’s be imaginative and come up with a better approach.’

ITB: Some people might associate self-celebration and self-congratulation with a more American way of doing things. How do you think that Canadians can celebrate themselves without appearing too egotistical?

DJ: Well, each culture has its own approach to that. As we look at Canadian culture I think we’ve been a little bit shy, quite frankly, and we should be more focused on congratulations, celebration, recognizing substantial contributions. I think we’re already pretty far along in moving from the first person singular to the first person plural. We are a society that does believe in collaboration and collective solutions. I’m not too worried about us putting more of a spotlight on individuals who’ve made important contributions to improving life for all of us. And in fact, most of the time when you do put a spotlight on individuals, the first thing they would say is, ‘Let me tell you, that this is a team effort. Let me tell you that things like this don’t happen unless you have a very substantial degree of collaboration.’

ITB: In covering the tech space in Canada, we often hear about the tech talent shortage. Why do you think Canada is the right place to build an innovation-focused eco-system?

DJ: Well, I’d say two things about the kind of diagnosis. One, we have a really good public education system, not absolutely superb, certain areas of improvement, but when we look around the world, early childhood education, primary, secondary, college and university, post-option research, we are the envy of the world in terms of a public, accessible, largely affordable education system with a very high proportion, but not high enough, of our population getting an opportunity to develop their talents through education.

Secondly, immigration has served us so very well. What we know from our experience is the children of immigrants tend to become more secularized, that tends to take even more advantage of our public education system than those of us who’ve been here for generations. And, immigrants come with a drive that life should be better for their children, and their children shall have that deal, but it’s not simply limited to their own family. It’s also improving the neighborhood and the community.

So, that’s the basis from which we start. Yes, we have a shortage of talent. We’ll have even more of a shortage of the right kind of talent in this age of acceleration and the digital revolution, but we’re not quite sure what and how, so I think what we need, in fact, is more emphasis on tech, more tech startups and well-established companies saying, ‘We aren’t getting enough of the talent we need.’ And then we sit down and we say, ‘Alright, what do we do about that,’ and we begin with our educational institutions and other things to say, ‘Let’s grow more of that talent in response to the demand that is there.’

I would also increase that demand, and my message always to the business community generally and to high tech people specifically, as a guy who spent my whole life in university, have great expectations, you impose great expectations on our educational institutions to be graduating the kind of resilient, innovating people that you’ll need for your business or your non-governmental organizations that drive in a somewhat challenging and ambiguous future, in terms of the future of work.

ITB: Do you think that Canada has some sort of role to play in helping the world develop technology, like AI, ethically?

DJ: I think Canada has a disproportionately large role to play in that because of the nature of the country, and because the brand internationally is good. Canada now is rated number one in terms of soft collar influence in the world. So, it’s not simply how we conduct external affairs, but the basic value of propositions of Canada are very positive ones. Not perfect, but very positive ones, in terms of developing trust. Number two, we have a book coming out in October called “Trust.” It’s about trust in public institutions, and the ethical application of new technology, of course, is a very important part of that. Number three, you’ll see in the programs for Canada Innovation Week, which we call it ‘weekish,’ because it started on May 22nd and goes to May 31st, longer than a week, yeah. The True North Conference on high tech in Waterloo, and this year the True North Conference actually will have a pledge, an opportunity for those people there who are quite techie. But the technological developments are attractive, powerful, and important. But how do we bring an ethical approach to them?

ITB: We know you wrote a book about this with Tom Jenkins, but I wonder if you have any very recent examples of innovation that you are seeing in Canada that you wanted to highlight here?

DJ: Well, I guess the most recent ones would be the governor of general innovation words from last week. That’s the third annual. One that really appeals to me is with respect to indigenous people in this west coast indigenous organization that essentially have developed alternative credit arrangements from microfinance to how do you deal with a mortgage on a house where our first nation’s person where a property is held by the community? And who do you bring that market of credit and banking, and so on, to communities that have not yet established that kind of thing? The founding trustee of the MasterCard Foundation that is headquartered in Toronto is now 11 years old, worth $17 billion of assets, and its focus is youth education and alternative finance or microfinance. That foundation has done wonderful things in going through parts of the world where someone would never have a bank account and would not be able to deal with credit because the sums were too small and the environment was too poor. How do you bring credit which we’ve known from, I guess the Italian banks of middle ages right up to the modern times, that the last 2 billion of the world that don’t know it. Those are important things.

Another innovation award, just to stay with specific examples, Breanne Edwards from Calvary was a doctor who won the award last year, and she’s developed a set of foot pads or soles with sensing devices that alert people to circulation issues in their legs and it’s an early treatment for diabetes. And now, this is going worldwide for diabetes and circulatory problems in the legs are epidemic proportions. In a sense, it’s fairly simple linking together all of the sensors and Wi-Fi and responses to those sensors, but as we deal with something like diabetes, this is the Canadian innovation that is absolutely terrific. Just two weeks ago Edwards was in one of the palaces in the U.K. with the Duke of York’s Commonwealth competition on innovation and was one of the top two winners of things that had the most impact, and used that occasion to develop guidelines with the National Health Service in the U.K.

Those are just specific examples. But the one that’s most attractive to me is Canada. Canada is social innovation, really a social innovation. And it’s a continuing experiment. It’s an experiment that you can live with diversity. And diversity and inclusivity actually become very positive features of your society. Whereas, most societies, countries, organizations, tend to drive the homogeneity rather than heterogeneity because homogeneity is easier to handle. It’s not nearly as messy. But, you know, this social innovation premise of Canada, we could make difference work for us is very exciting and one that I think has important lessons for the rest of the world.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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