Canada-U.S. Partnership Conference: Enhancing the Innovation Ecosystem
Ottawa, Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Throughout our history, the United States has always been a close friend and ally to Canada on a number of fronts. Our collaboration and partnership throughout our history have provided opportunities for our respective economies and societies to grow.
Today, you have gathered to discuss new ways we can come together as smart nations, using our combined talents to their fullest potential.
Innovation is recognized as a great indicator of success; in his last State of the Union address, President Barak Obama recognized its importance by stating that “…innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It is how we make our living.”
However, the fact that innovation is important to our evolution is nothing new. History reminds us that successful societies are driven by innovation, and that knowledge is the key to discovery.
Allow me to take a moment to look back at one of the most dynamic moments in the history of Western civilization: Renaissance Florence in the 15th century. This was a period of creativity and intellectual ferment that led to incredible activity in the arts, sciences, politics, religion and scholarship.
Through the power of ideas, the people of Florence moved out of the Middle Ages and into a new era—the Renaissance—where the best of classical antiquity was paired with advances in humanism and science.
Just recount the names—Michelangelo in painting and sculpture, Leonardo da Vinci in art and engineering, Machiavelli in his writing about politics and Savonarola in religion. Several centuries earlier, it was there that Dante invented the Italian language and the Medicis in the financial sphere.
The legacy is nothing if not mixed—after all, these remarkable individuals were also products of their time—but their influence on the future course of Europe is undeniable.
We must ask ourselves: what was it that enabled this Italian city state of approximately 50 000 people to achieve such remarkable heights?
The reasons are many and include the wealth of Florence as a merchant city, its political independence and civic pride, the existence of a large middle class, competition among artists and craftsmen, and the widespread system of apprenticeship between generations. Today, we might call these preconditions prosperity, civil society, equality, competition, learning and the sharing of knowledge.
The cluster of activity in 15th-century Florence brought these elements together, with results that were innovative and sometimes surprising. Let me give a specific example.
In his book Brunelleschi’s Dome, art historian Ross King tells the story of the building of the great dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, completed in 1436. In designing this engineering marvel, Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi fused elements of classical design with innovations in science and technology, and reinvented architecture in the process. That much is fairly well-known.
Less renowned is one of the unexpected side effects of Brunelleschi’s innovation: an advance in astronomy that had far-reaching applications for ocean navigation.
This development came about after Brunelleschi’s friend, mathematician and astronomer Paolo Toscanelli, climbed to the top of the great cathedral and placed a bronze plate at the top of the dome. As King explains:
“Santa Maria del Fiore was thus transformed into a giant sundial. This instrument would prove vital to the history of astronomy. The height and stability of the dome allowed Toscanelli to gain a superior knowledge of what were then thought to be the sun’s motions . . . which in turn enabled him to calculate with a much greater accuracy than anyone previously the exact moment of both the summer solstice and the vernal equinox.”
I want to stop for a moment to consider this remarkable development. An entirely unanticipated spinoff of Brunelleschi’s great dome led to an advance in celestial navigation, which in turn allowed mariners and mapmakers to plot their positions more accurately. Thanks to this innovation and many others like it, the great age of ocean navigation was about to begin.
Now, we are at the forefront of a new shift, one that occurred centuries ago, when humanity evolved from a hunter/gatherer society to a more agrarian one on land, only today it is happening in water.
In the last 20 or 30 years, we have been devising new ways to utilize the sea in areas of energy, mining and even farming.
Canada has the largest coastline in the world; this gives Canadians a wonderful opportunity to become leaders in a new and exciting field.
As with Brunelleschi, we must look at different ways that we have adapted to changes on land to see how we can apply them under water.
My point in sharing this story is to emphasize the fruitful and often unexpected results of innovation and knowledge sharing. One of the best ways to enhance knowledge is to share it, and new discoveries are seldom the work of an individual.
Collaboration builds outward and is taken up by others—the opportunities that spring up are often serendipitous.
Like Brunelleschi and Toscanelli, the United States and Canada must work together to strengthen our innovation culture—to cluster intelligently.
This means more than simply investing in research and development; we must also shift our way of thinking, especially in Canada.
Last year, the Conference Board of Canada gave Canada a “D” grade in innovation; it ranked 14th out of 17 OECD countries.
We can see from this ranking that there is a gap in our thinking, one that threatens Canada’s momentum.
We must be willing to take risks, to think and dream of the improbable and to make it a reality. We may stumble, but we will learn from our mistakes and emerge more knowledgeable, and therefore more capable of evolving with rapidly changing times.
Canada must be better at establishing the framework at an early age for youth to adapt to a changing world, so that they are able not only to see what is, but also to envision things as they might be. Canada, like the United States, cannot afford to be complacent about this.
I urge you to look at new ways of partnering, with each other and with communities, cities, provinces, territories and even other countries to strengthen our position in the world.
We have one dramatically powerful example and that is the degree from which Canadians have benefited from the power of ideas and the great universities in the United States—America’s most impressive invention. We have increasingly developed the collaborative two-way webs of partnerships with them across the geographical and intellectual frontier.
Over the past year, I have seen first-hand communities that have developed an innovation culture, and as a result, improved the lives of their residents.
I have seen what happens when we come together as a country, when we collaborate with our friends, and when we use the resources we have in new and startling ways.
We can be proud of what we have already accomplished, but we are capable of so much more.
During this conference, I urge you to think and dream of the different ways for both Canada and the United States to emerge as leaders in innovation.