Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains on how to make Canada globally competitive

The Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development explains how his “Innovation Agenda” will promote Canadian global competitiveness

Canadian Federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains

Canadian Federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains speaking in the House of Commons. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

This June, the Government of Canada launched what it called a “nationwide call to action” in the form of its “Innovation Agenda.” The idea was to highlight six areas of focus to drive growth: making innovation a “core Canadian value,” establishing nationwide scientific excellence, creating world-leading “clusters and partnerships,” growing Canadian companies, developing a digital-first economy, and making Canada a top location for foreign investment. This fall, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains attended the Waterloo Innovation Summit to discuss the initiative’s success. He spoke with Canadian Business about the changes Canada needs to make to be more competitive on the global stage.

One of the things you’ve said in the past is that Canadians “don’t need another report on what’s wrong.” What does that mean?

We’re going through difficulties when it comes to the question, “How are we going to grow our economy?” Low growth is a challenge in Canada and globally as well. It doesn’t have to be our destiny. We firmly believe that we can grow the economy and be global leaders; beat the rest of the world. And, in order to do that innovation is something that we think is going to be critical to our success.

With the “Innovation Agenda,” the idea was to engage business, civil society, academia, and different levels of government, and saying “Look, what are the opportunities?” There’s three themes that stood out, the first one being talent.

So, how can we focus on coding, for example, at a very young age. How do we focus on more co-op opportunities, or internships, apprenticeships? Then, how do we really focus on providing skills like digital skills, and additional opportunities for individuals all the way to C-suite, so they can transition to different jobs?

The other issue was really around research. How can we supplement what we already have made in investments? We’ve increased funding for granting counsels for example. We’ve invested significantly in our institutions. We made a significant down payment, $2 billion to our colleges and universities to upgrade the facilities, upgrade the buildings, really create an environment for students and professors to succeed and be able to reach their potential.

The third thing is the focus on growing companies. We’re really good at starting up companies. Seventy thousand companies each year we start, approximately, but, how do we grow them? Because, if you look at it, only 5% of them are high growth. Which have 20% growth three consecutive years in a row. We really need to identify this high growth, try to create new high growth companies, and focus on that.

In the agenda, you also put out a call for the business sector to invest in innovation. How so?

The idea is it’s going to require a collective effort. Government can’t do this alone; government can’t prescribe innovation. We’ve set ambitious goals, but, we need private sectors to step up. If you look at R&D investment by businesses, we’re 22 out of 34 OECD countries. We can and must do better. The idea is to ask civil society, our academic institutions, corporate Canada and our businesses to all step up, because this is something that’s really going to be a team effort.

Part of the “Innovation Agenda” is the idea that Canadians’ mindsets need to change, and that we need to start seeing ourselves as global players. What do you mean by that?

It’s all about global success. For example, how do we create global clusters and networks? How do we focus in areas where our companies can be global champions; it really is a mindset. It’s really about saying, “Look, if you fail, fail fast, learn fast, and never quit.” The idea is to really change the culture, create a culture of innovation.

Do you feel the initiative has been a success?

So far, the response has been overwhelming. We’ve received over 1,300 ideas, and that speaks to the level of engagement, the enthusiasm, and the desire to succeed.