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The North needs a shared innovation pipeline

Heather Exner-PirotEye on the Arctic

Innovation has become one of those ubiquitous buzzwords used as part of the everyday jargon of business and politics. Governments, universities, industry and communities are all striving to be more innovative in their thinking, which ultimately translates into working smarter, not harder. This has led a number of researchers to think systematically about innovation, and the circumstances under which it flourishes. Richard Florida's "Creative Cities" thesis is representative of these, and argues that even in the age of the Internet, creativity and innovation are linked to geographical proximity, and in particular, large cities:

The proximity of talented, highly educated people has a powerful effect on innovation and economic growth…when large numbers of entrepreneurs, financiers, engineers, designers and other smart, creative people are constantly bumping into one another inside and outside work, business ideas are formed, sharpened, executed, and -- if successful -- expanded. The more smart people, and the denser the connections among them, the faster it all goes.

Proximity is obviously not an advantage that the North enjoys. The region also, in Canada, lacks universities and population density. As a result, most northerners are not benefiting from much of the technological innovation being developed in the South. And this is a huge problem for improving self-sufficiency and community development.

I had the opportunity to take part in a conference on northern greenhouses at the beginning of November. One of the things that struck me most was that the technology for northern communities to grow their own food -- and for that matter, their own energy -- already exists. It just hasn’t been transferred to the North. One researcher commented that there is “an insufficient awareness” on the part of northerners of existing technologies. But the flip side of that is the insufficient awareness of researchers about the opportunities, and needs, for different technologies in the North. In addition to new greenhouse and food chamber technologies, biomass-fuelled district-heating would reduce dependence on diesel generators; insulation and glazing advances could make homes and buildings much more energy efficient, reducing heating bills; lightweight materials could replace heavier materials that are expensive to ship; and e-health and distance education technologies could improve access to services in the North. There are probably hundreds more of such ideas that could make the cost of living go down and the quality of life go up in the North if only they were applied more comprehensively.

Community empowerment

An evolution in the way business and policy implementation is conducted in the North could help. It used to be, not long ago, that government was the originator and implementor of most ideas and policies, often with lackluster results. To their credit, most government agencies have recognized this problem and are increasingly promoting initiatives that involve some combination of communities, business, government and researchers. This model leads to a lot of committee meetings. But overall, it seems to be producing good results. Communities have empowered themselves to take the lead on many policy initiatives; businesses, both large and small, are increasingly concerned with the social responsibilities that arise from their work; and universities and research councils are promoting outside engagement and “knowledge mobilization.” The good news is the decentralized partnership model is becoming increasingly common, and everyone is willing to do more within this framework. The not-so-good news is that there’s room for improvement. Although there’s blame to go around, I’ll point a finger at universities and academics. Efforts have been made, particularly in northern and aboriginal communities, to learn from past mistakes and move to a “community-based participatory research” method, i.e. one that better involves community stakeholders. Outreach is the new name of the game. But here I’ll surprise myself by quoting Newt Gingrich, who spoke recently about the need to move from outreach to inclusion, albeit in a different context, but one that has a lesson to those among us who still see knowledge transfer in the North as a one way street. It’s good to go out and tell communities how your research benefits them. But sometimes it’s better to have communities identify the research that would be of benefit to them, and then go do it. We typically leave that line of work to consultants. (This is not meant to downplay the excellent northern-focused research that does exist, not least at Yukon College’s own Cold Climate Innovation center, but to encourage more of it.)

The challenges and opportunities

If the challenge of northern innovation is to promote the clustering of thought, then we must be more creative at doing this over large distances. First off, the division of the Canadian North into three territories and seven provincial Norths is a huge barrier to knowledge transfer. There are nearly 1.5 million Canadians in the subarctic and Arctic with common social and economic challenges and opportunities. As much as possible we should try to create a virtual “city” where ideas are shared and people from Labrador bump into people from Thompson through online forums, webinars, and social networking. Many northern groups have successfully used Facebook as a means of social protest, from Nunavut’s Feed Our Families to northern Manitoba’s Tataskweyak Justice Alliance. That kind of grassroots online networking should be extended to individuals with common professional interests, from health and education to shipping and construction.

Northern stakeholders should also focus on what Ken Coates calls “bundling innovation” – maximizing benefits from investments and innovations across the health, education, business, government, industry and entertainment sectors instead of isolating their use to one particular field. Finally, there’s a huge opportunity for northern and aboriginal economic development corporations to commercialize technologies from the South for use in the North, first because southern firms haven’t been very active in doing so, and second because EDCs know the market, suppliers, and customers in the North and typically have a mandate to conduct business that benefits their members.

As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and there is a lot of necessity in the North. I am not an advocate of either small government or big government; but I think a smart government would start providing the strategic investments by which to make innovation transfer to the North happen faster.

This commentary is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.

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