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Innovation requires more than just new products

Wendy Cukier is vice-president for research and innovation at Ryerson University and incoming president of Brock University. She is co-author of Innovation Nation: Canadian Leadership From Java to Jurassic Park.

For almost two decades, Canada has been formulating and reformulating its innovation strategy, and technology-driven transformation has been central. The development of new technology-enabled products services and processes is key to virtually every sector. However, while necessary, technology is insufficient to drive growth and productivity improvements. Innovation is not simply the creation of new products, services or processes but about using them to drive change. Simply put, inventors and entrepreneurs can create brilliant new technologies, services and processes. But if these technologies, services and processes are not actually used or adopted, there is no innovation.

Canadian consumers have made Canada one of the world's most connected countries, with 98 per cent of our population accessing high-speed networks and wireless broadband services. But in the words of Google Canada managing director Sam Sebastian, Canadian companies are moving "bad slow" in their use of digital technologies. A study by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) showed that more than 30 per cent did not even have an Internet presence, never mind advanced mobile systems, Internet of things, cloud computing, data analytics or the tools that are needed in most sectors to compete in the 21st century.

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Fundamentally, while engineers and computer scientists are critical, technology is too important to be left to the technologists. Consider electronic health records; they do have the potential to transform health care. As one observer in the Journal of the American Medical Records Association noted that "obstacles to the practical use of the computerized medical record exist, but we may expect these to vanish within a few years. We have a golden opportunity to avoid a new round of escalating medical costs." But that was 25 years ago.

But barriers to the adoption of e-health are not technological – they are organizational, political and behavioural. There are legal and privacy issues. And, doctors themselves. One survey indicated that only 30 per cent of U.S. doctors think patients should have access to their personal health records.

Many companies that have disrupted entire industries – think Dell, Uber, Airbnb – use technologies that are relatively mundane but in transformative ways. Even former IBM CEO Sam Palmisano understands that the use of the technology is what is critical: "It's about application of inventions to solve problems."

Many companies, particularly SMEs, are not adverse to new approaches but they do not have the time or resources needed to evaluate new technologies. And the technology pushers also have much to account for – the assumption that "if we build it, they will come" permeates the industry and often the inability to translate the tech talk into anything that makes business sense is a major impediment to adoption. The attention to the user experience, consumer behaviour, organizational goals and objectives, policies and other implementation issues is wholly inadequate. And this is compounded by the notion that technology issues are the domain of students and researchers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines without regard to the critical contributions needed by those in social sciences, business, humanities and design disciplines.

I am among those old enough to remember the heady days of Xerox Parc, when engineers and computer scientists worked alongside anthropologists, artists and even musicians because it was understood that multidisciplinary perspectives were key in shaping the future. Focusing only on developing the supply of technology without regard to the factors shaping demand and human behaviour and the ways to influence them, will, I fear, not get us where we need to go. Unless we base our innovation strategies on evidence rather than assertions, we risk doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. Our innovation strategy needs a reboot if we are to realize the transformational potential of emerging technologies.

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