Innovation or Inertia? Unpacking the Federal Government's Shortlist for the Innovation Superclusters

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 - 4:05pm

Innovation has been an incredibly popular theme for the Liberal federal government, and agriculture has been repeatedly pinpointed as a sector ripe for its application. The 2017 Federal Budget, tabled in March of 2017, references innovation over eighty times and identifies agriculture and agri-food as key areas for growth. This followed the release of the latest report of the Advisory Council on Economic Growth (the so-called Barton report), which pinpointed agriculture as a promising sector through which to achieve its goal of “unlocking innovation” and “improv[ing] the innovation ecosystem”.

In June of 2017 the Federal government also announced the creation of a Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy to “unlock new innovative approaches that improve the wellbeing of Canadians.” This past month, the federal government released the shortlisted applications for its Innovative Superclusters Initiative.

While there is significant excitement and momentum behind the idea of innovation, it remains a poorly defined concept. Often, innovation is seen only through a technical or scientific lens, narrowly defined as the development and application of new technologies that will lead to a significant increase in economic growth and competitiveness.

This limited understanding of innovation is on full display in the federal government's Innovative Supercluster Initiative. This Initiative will provide five-year “targeted, high-value investments” to “energize the economy and become engines of growth” (“Innovation SuperClusters Initiative”). The shortlisted projects are proposing to spur innovation using digital technologies and artificial intelligence in a diversity of sectors including aerospace, manufacturing, mining, agriculture and agri-food processing, and oil and gas. The list of projects currently contending for a piece of the $950 million earmarked by the feds last May includes some of the biggest corporate names in Canada: Emera Inc., Clearwater, AgroPur, CAE Inc., Pratt & Whitney, Barrick Gold, Maple Leaf Foods, Agrium, Telus, PCL Construction Management Inc., and Microsoft Canada’s Development Centre.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the finalists all have deep pockets: one of the biggest obstacles to even submitting a proposal to this program is the requirement of matching funds. The program description indicates the government expects each supercluster to receive funding between “$125 million and $250 million”, entailing an equal amount of funding generated by the applicant. In addition, Letters of Intent must be submitted by an “industry-led consortium” involving a range of enterprises and at least one postsecondary institution. There is no requirement for civil society or non-governmental organizations involvement. This sends a clear message about who is assumed to be leaders and drivers of innovation.

One of the two proposal focused on agriculture and agri-foods intends to great a “Smart Agri-Food Super Cluster”, using information technologies to build “informatics, connectivity and traceability.” The other seeks to position Canada as the leading global exporter of plant-based proteins. In these proposals we see the same old mentality that has plagued Canada’s food system, pushing exports and technology as the bearers of economic prosperity. Irena Knezevic and Kelly Bronson recently raised concerns about the enthusiasm for so-called “smart-ag”, cautioning that a digital revolution in agriculture may in fact lead to increased disparity and stratification (A full list of the shortlisted applications is available here.).

Many have called the government’s plan a bold move to spur much needed investments in research and development (see for example the recent op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen by Rosann Runte, CEO of Canada Foundation for Innovation). However, it should give Canadians pause that the government has already committed $950 million dollars over five years to this initiative, while the development of the Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy, the Poverty Reduction Strategy and A Food Policy for Canada have yet to be accompanied by any funding commitments. Hopefully the 2018 Budget addresses this imbalance.

Framing innovation as technologically driven large-scale change fails to capture many of the innovations occurring in other sectors and at other scales. There is a growing, discussion of community-based social innovation, driven not by technology and a growth imperative, but by local solutions, a preoccupation with social and environmental outcomes, collaboration and creativity. As many involved in community food initiatives know very well, innovation is not just about new technologies: it is also about new ways of thinking, doing and of approaching challenging issues. If the government is serious about developing and scaling-up new and creative ways of meeting complex social and economic problems (a much more holistic and inclusive definition of innovation), it needs to expand the scope of available funding and support.

Unfortunately, if the first meeting of the newly appointed Agri-Food Economic Strategy Table is any indication, the federal government shows no signs of amending course on the innovation front. This advisory body is composed exclusively of food industry representatives and large-scale producers, and continues to focus the discussion of the future of Canadian agriculture on exports, and technological innovation.

As part of its recommendations for A Food Policy for Canada, Food Secure Canada is calling for the creation of a $65 million Food and Social Innovation Fund to scale-up community-led innovations in our food system. Such a fund could be an important first step in harnessing the full potential of innovative ideas and initiatives to bring about greater sustainability, equity and prosperity for all Canadians.

Amanda Wilson is a PostDoctoral Fellow at Lakehead University, working with Food Secure Canada on agri-food policy and community-academic collaboration.