“Technopreneurship” and social innovation

Helping technopreneurship in Canada

What’s technopreneurship? It’s an opportunity and a challenge for Canada. It’s an industry in which collaboration is both strongly espoused and yet still more strongly needed.

The very introduction of this word is an indication of how society is evolving. And, we hope, technopreneurs will be the leaders in the push for a more socially innovative economy.

Though the word “technopreneurship” is not officially recognized by mainstream dictionaries, it generates more than 65 thousand hits on Google and nearly 250 on Google Scholar. This disconnect between linguistic officialdom and the vernacular mirrors the rift between mainstream society and emerging culture. A “technopreneur”, according to internet parlance and renegade virtual publishers, is an entrepreneur who extensively uses or develops information and communications technologies.

Canada has a grand history of involvement in developing technopreneurs, and not just in the video-game and hand-held device industry.  Indeed, Canada has one of the strongest “digital humanities” scholarly communities in the world, with many of these researchers becoming “technopreneurs” in their own right and working with partners across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Many of these scholarly “technopreneurs” had their work incubated by SSHRC in the Image, Text, Sound and Technology (ITST) funding program which began in at the beginning of this millennium. Recently, SSHRC awarded one of its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives to a consortium of 35 digital humanities researchers and 21 partner agencies under the leadership of Ray Siemens at UVIC — an indication of how mature this type of activity has become.

The interdisciplinarity and intersectoral nature of technopreneurship has tremendous opportunities, but also many daunting challenges. Technopreneurship in academe, public, private and not-for-profit sectors has sometimes met a brick wall at the program and institutional level. We need an appropriate balance between supporting the making of technical folks into entrepreneurs and making entrepreneurs more tech-savvy. Likewise, we also need to create more and deeper partnerships between content experts, entrepreneurs across sectors and technical experts with IT and engineering backgrounds.

While SSHRC has invested in ITST (which is a step in the right direction) much more needs to be done by both federal research granting agencies, institutions and collaborators across sectors to develop the working relationships and partnership between the tech folks and the content experts, many of whom are trained in the social sciences and humanities. This improved integration is also necessary to round out the individual skill sets in the community. SSHRC’s fledgling “Digging into Data” partnership with NEH, NSF, IMLS, and JISC on digital humanities might help in this regard.

When I spoke at IBM’s Centre for Advanced Study Conference (CASCON), there was widespread agreement by the panelists and participants in our session that all our institutions need to change. And we’re feeling the growing pains of the transition to the new information and communications technologies. This included universities, governments, service agencies and so on. Hence, “technopreneurs” are needed not only in the private sector but in public and not-for-profit organizations as well. Technopreneurship ought to also focus on social innovation and not just the success of private sector enterprises. The MaRS example was cited as an exciting and innovative model to be emulated.

SSHRC is fortunate to have a few top Canadian “technopreneurs” on its governing council.  Tom Jenkins, founder of Open Text – which started with the digitization of the Oxford English Dictionary – and Gerri Sinclair, the founding executive director of the collaborative New Media graduate program at the new Great Northern Way Campus in Vancouver are leading edge examples of technopreneurs.

The challenge for Canada, now, is to move to the next level in supporting the creative development, use and integration of powerful information and communication technologies for the betterment of society.