June 28, 2001 Vol . 21, No. 5

Project to improve capacity to innovate

By Julie Ovenell-Carter

Canadian industry is barrelling down the innovation highway on the way to international competitiveness, but the journey's fraught with bureaucratic roadblocks, administrative bottlenecks, and policy-driven potholes.

Fortunately, a new national research study funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) aims to smooth the road to progress by exploring how local networks, or clusters, of business, government, and academic researchers work together to stimulate innovative practices and economic growth.

Innovation Systems and Economic Development: The Role of Local and Regional Clusters in Canada is a national project with a regional focus.

The five-year, $2.5-million interdisciplinary study is headed by David Wolfe, of the University of Toronto's centre for international studies/political science.

Researchers from the Maritimes, Ontario, Quebec and western Canada will study 22 clusters within seven newly emerging and traditional industry sectors across five different regions. Industry sectors will include biotechnology, multimedia communications, photonics, wood products, and the wine industry.

SFU communication professor Adam Holbrook (left), associate director of SFU's centre for policy research on science and technology (CPROST), heads the western subnetwork, InnoCom, that includes co-investigators from the University of British Columbia, and the University of Calgary, as well as CPROST director Richard Smith.

"By pin-pointing the synergies between business, government, and research institutions, we hope to be able to improve a region's capacity for innovation," says Holbrook, who will lead the national team investigating aids and barriers to innovation in biotechnology.

"At the end of the day, this study must come up with specific results that are of use to policy makers. If, as previous research suggests, the approach to innovation varies across Canada, we must determine how to help those regional systems work together rather than fracture apart. We must be sure that a one-size-fits-all policy to promote innovation does not hinder this across the country."

As an example, Holbrook cites regional differences in biotechnology. "The large pharmaceutical multi-nationals have tended to locate in Montreal, where they enjoy the support of a strong clinical medical system, a European cultural environment, and a system of law that discourages class-action suits.

"In the west, you are more likely to find small, locally owned firms with one bright idea to sell, which they usually end up selling along with the company. We think they operate differently from their eastern counterparts, and so do the institutions that support them. The question is: what can we learn from the way the two systems operate to remove impediments to innovation?"

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