Address to the Canada Foundation for Innovation
Ottawa, Monday, November 28, 2011
Thank you for inviting me here today. I strongly believe in the power of collaboration, so it is with great optimism that I join you for this gathering dedicated to fostering collaborative innovation in our changing world.
Allow me to begin by recalling that which has not changed—namely, the creativity of Canadians and our commitment to building smarter, more caring communities.
I have just returned from a State visit to Southeast Asia, where expatriate Canadians are having a positive impact on education, business and culture, and where our ability to work collaboratively and to innovate is increasingly recognized and sought after.
Canada is renowned for its wealth of minerals, timber and fresh water, and to these resources we can add our collective ingenuity and our talent for collaboration.
How do we best apply our resources and abilities to improve our society?
That is the challenge this foundation has set itself, and I want to congratulate you on your successes to date. Thanks to your work, researchers and labs across this country have been provided with the tools and equipment necessary to succeed. The research you are supporting is helping to build our communities and to strengthen our country.
For example, thanks to this foundation, the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research has acquired a $1.2-million electron microscope that is proving invaluable to researchers at work on a range of complex problems. It is an asset not just to the school, but also to researchers across the region—a fine illustration of the importance of sharing equipment and infrastructure.
Your impact is also being felt in the fight against cancer, thanks to work this foundation is supporting at École Polytechnique de Montréal’s Nanorobotics Laboratory. Researchers there have broken new ground by using nanotechnology to deliver anti-cancer drugs which do not damage healthy tissue.
It is a world-first, and it reminds us that the value of knowledge depends on its ability to help others, and that one of the keys to successful innovation is to pay close attention to the needs of people.
Yet another example is that of Lauchlan Fraser, a leading Canadian ecologist who has returned home from abroad to become the Canada Research Chair in Community and Ecosystem Ecology at Thomson Rivers University, and whose research on wetlands and climate change is supported by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.
As this story demonstrates, we must set our sights high if we are to compete with the world in retaining excellence and attracting the brightest minds to study and work in Canada.
These stories demonstrate several important preconditions for innovation today: the need to share resources; the importance of listening to and helping people; and the need to play to win in the international arena. And of course, as this foundation reminds us, we must invest in research and development whenever possible.
But innovation is about much more than tools and equipment, as you know. It’s about people working together. Success stories such as these also demonstrate the collaborative nature of knowledge building in the 21st century, with researchers, universities and organizations such as this pooling their talents and resources to greater effect.
Few discoveries today are made in isolation—particularly in research and innovation—and our greatest advances often occur at the intersections between disciplines, organizations and communities.
And ultimately, all knowledge is interrelated.
“Innovation ecosystem” is a term that is gaining currency because it captures the dynamic, synergistic nature of innovation as ideas, knowledge and resources are shared and drive creative thinking.
An example of an innovation ecosystem from my own experience comes to mind. Some of you may know that I was privileged to serve as principal of McGill University for many wonderful years, and one of the projects I worked on during my time there was to help establish a professional master’s degree program in engineering.
The program was developed along with five other regional universities and the local aerospace industry, to address a specific problem: in the absence of a sufficient number of qualified Canadian employees, companies were being forced to recruit talent from abroad.
Furthermore, after gaining valuable work experience in Quebec, many of those foreign employees soon returned to their home countries or left for other destinations, leaving the aerospace sector facing a constant shortage of workers.
The solution was to cultivate a workforce here in Canada able to fill those jobs. Once this goal was identified, the collaborators worked closely to develop the master’s program, which has been a key component in the remarkable success of the provincial aerospace industry.
The lessons from this experience are clear, and they underline the importance of talking to each other and identifying strengths and weaknesses within our communities.
I mentioned earlier that I recently returned from Southeast Asia, where I visited Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore. Having met with a cross-section of people in these countries—including expatriate Canadians—I can reaffirm that diversity is one of the great strengths of our society. Canada has attracted more immigrants per capita than any other nation, and thanks to our approach to multiculturalism, we encourage retention of cultural heritage.
Canadians speak many of the world’s languages, and we are also home to a remarkable number of cultural diasporas. These two assets give us great global advantage, and I believe we should celebrate and build upon them in reaching out to the world.
Without a doubt, a diversity of ideas, experiences and abilities can encourage creativity.
I sometimes draw on the history of Renaissance Florence to illustrate how working together can stimulate new discoveries. The Renaissance was a period of unprecedented activity in the arts, sciences, politics, religion and scholarship, and provides vivid illustrations of the scope and variety of creativity. It also demonstrates the difficulties we sometimes have in accepting new findings, and I would like to expand briefly on the importance of always having an open mind.
An open mind is an essential ingredient of discovery and innovation.
One of the most famous examples is the story of Galileo Galilei, who played a key role in transforming our knowledge of the cosmos when he observed the moons of Jupiter through his telescope. The implications were enormous: if moons revolve around Jupiter, it meant they do not revolve around Earth—and therefore, that Earth is not at the centre of the cosmos.
The story, and Galileo’s ensuing struggle with the authorities of the day, is now familiar to us.
Perhaps less well known—and a reminder of how the absence or suppression of differing viewpoints can stifle innovations—are the lengths to which some people went to try to preserve the old worldview as the evidence piled up against it—for Galileo’s discovery was built upon those already made by Copernicus and Kepler.
Fearing and rejecting the findings, supporters of the status quo built elaborate models that attempted to explain the seemingly irregular motions of planetary bodies and to preserve Earth’s place at the centre of the universe.
Ultimately, these attempts collapsed under the weight of fact, and suddenly a new constellation of possibilities arose—this time centred on the understanding that the planets, Earth included, in fact orbit the sun.
I believe this story indicates a number of basic truths about discovery: the way that one finding builds on another; the role of advanced tools and equipment—Galileo’s telescope, for example; and the vital importance of critical thinking—not just applied to discovery, but also in assessing our findings and informing and changing our assumptions when necessary.
Discovery drives innovation. As a society, we must reaffirm our openness to new ideas, while building upon the best of our traditions. And we must embrace lifelong learning, through broad education in science, technology, engineering, math and the humanities and, especially, in critical thinking,
By working together—collaborating to share ideas, resources and needs, and always aspiring to excellence—we can lay the foundations for more and greater innovation. Your help is essential, and I thank each of you for your dedication to building a smarter, more caring nation.