Premier Christy Clark introduces UBC president Santa Ono (right) as the province’s advisor on innovation, January 2017. (B.C. government photo)

Politicians can’t direct innovation

Ottawa has 140 innovation programs, with more to come

The core of the new federal budget is an “Innovation and Skills Plan” to encourage business investment and jobs in Canada.

This is the second budget of the Justin Trudeau government, which means the second year of borrowing and spending billions for “infrastructure” with little to show for it so far. I have no argument with skills training, a must in our fast-changing economy. But what about this “innovation” business, and is it really the business of governments?

According to the latest Trudeau budget, innovation will help move Canada beyond reliance on our “rich natural resources,” and of course “grow the middle class.”

One of the headings is “Program Simplification,” which tells you where this is all going wrong.

“The Government of Canada’s vast array of innovation programs makes it difficult for business to find and secure the support they need,” it says. The more than 140 existing programs will be reviewed.

Yes, Ottawa has been trying for a long time to move us beyond “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” to use the decades-old cliché. Stephen Harper gave us a $400 million “Venture Capital Action Plan,” seed money to attract private capital to startups.

Trudeau doubled down last year with $800 million to create “clusters” of universities, business and government to spawn the next Silicon Valley. This year, Ottawa has dedicated $950 million to grow “superclusters,” which Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains assures us are “job magnets.”

Alas, Canada sucks at innovation, and producing entrepreneurs. Everything from our auto industry to our environmental movement consists mainly of American branch plants.

We’ve had a few breakout successes, like BlackBerry, but now Canadians mostly laugh at how un-cool they are. And while taxpayers’ money keeps pouring into this “vast array” of programs, business investment in research and commercialization still lags behind.

B.C.’s got innovation fever too. In January, Premier Christy Clark re-launched her “jobs plan,” a flexible beast that isn’t so much about natural gas exports right now as new technology, climate change and yes, innovation.

Clark appointed UBC president Santa Ono as the government’s chief advisor on innovation. He’s got clusters on his mind, no doubt.

NDP leader John Horgan hasn’t shown us much on innovation yet, but give him time. It’s the hot political fashion trend this spring.

Green Party leader Andrew Weaver is clustering as we speak. He launched his “innovation and sustainable enterprise plan” in Vancouver last week, starting with an “emerging economy task force” to start work as soon as a BC Green government takes over.

There will be $20 million a year “to support ideation, mentoring and networking at post-secondary institutions,” $50 million for “business incubators” and “accelerators,” and $70 million over four years “to leverage seed or angel funding.” (No, I don’t know what ideation is either.)

The CBC had an innovation a while back, a show called Dragon’s Den. If you’ve seen it, you know the drill. Angel investors take a hard look at a new product and offer financing for part ownership.

My favourite dragon is Jim Treliving, a no-nonsense ex-RCMP officer who built Boston Pizza into a three-country empire. He doesn’t spew insults like former panelist Kevin O’Leary, he just tells would-be entrepreneurs what in his view works and what doesn’t.

So now politicians assure us they can pick winners, with our money. Here’s Innovation Minister Bains, explaining it to The Globe and Mail last week:

“Innovation is fundamentally about people. And it’s about better outcomes, better communities. It’s finding solutions so that people can live better lives.”

Right.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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