Voting for innovation

How will the candidates encourage growth?

Uncertain times

In the aftermath of a global financial crisis, many cities are looking for ways to generate growth. Whether it’s the “big reset” as Richard Florida calls it, or declining faith in traditional industries, there’s a widespread view that we need different approaches to the way we stimulate and manage local economies.

Toronto’s 2010 civic elections have been animated by a wide range of issues — infrastructure, spending controls, heritage, green jobs, investment attraction, municipal finance and tax reform. This reflects the great diversity of civic stakeholders and the underlying complexity of governing a large city.

At the same time, we’ve seen the resurgence of familiar-sounding remedies to today’s problems — elect trustworthy politicians, cut back, recalibrate, take care of our own. That’s not surprising. In uncertain times local elections often reflect our impulse to return to a more stable past. In a sense there’s a collective hunkering down and a search for simple answers that resonate close to home.

Stepping up our game

But now is not the time to dampen our ambitions for Toronto and lower our expectations for great outcomes. Low expectations inflict their own kind of tyranny — mediocre results. Ask any member of Team Canada Hockey. Aiming for bronze is not an option. It’s high expectations that cultivate strong performance.

So, in a world where cities from Palo Alto to Beijing are reinventing their economic foundations, we need to step up our game. Toronto’s challenge, like that of other world cities, is to build resilience in its economy by finding new and better ways of doing the things we value. That’s what innovation is about.

Why innovation matters

Innovation works in the economy through revolutionary discoveries — like insulin and the microchip — that create entirely new products, services and markets. It also takes the form of improvements — like the smart phone and supercomputer — that make us more efficient and productive. Innovation affects economic growth because cities that excel in generating and applying breakthrough ideas are able to put research, technology, design and investment into the hands of talented people who create goods the world wants. In short, innovation is essential for creating the next generation of jobs and future prosperity.

At MaRS we’re fortunate to play a significant role in Toronto’s innovation community. Because we help commercialize research and advise new ventures about how to grow and scale their businesses, we’ve seen over 2000 start-ups emerging in life sciences, information communication technology, interactive media, entertainment, clean tech, advanced manufacturing and social innovation. Since 2005, we’ve helped entrepreneurs find seasoned mentors, solidify their business ideas, develop entrepreneurial smarts, find customers and attract early-stage capital.

Innovation challenge

Yet these companies are still too few and too small for us to compete with innovation leaders such as Boston, San Francisco, London or Stockholm. Stepping up our game requires us to:

  • implement policies that favour innovation-driven businesses as well as conventional industries;
  • boost our ability to convert advanced research into marketable products;
  • provide practical incentives for business spending on new research and technology;
  • become a destination for the world’s brightest minds through multifaceted strategies for attracting and integrating newcomers;
  • foster closer ties between education and entrepreneurship at all levels of the school system; and,
  • increase the scale and sophistication of financing for new ventures.

Higher expectations

There are some promising signs. The 2009 federal budget provided $5.1 billion in new spending on science and technology infrastructure, research and commercialization. This includes programs to attract top researchers from around the world to help Canada excel in chosen areas of strength — environmental technologies, energy, resources, information & communication technology and life sciences. Ontario is creating and investing in a network of integrated innovation centres to harness regional research, business expertise and venture capital to help small and medium-sized tech companies grow into significant employers. And local advocacy organizations are calling for a new city council to leverage Toronto’s innovation strengths — a well-educated population, diverse workforce, large market size, quality living standards and stature as Canada’s largest research and commercialization cluster.

Leadership across boundaries

Innovation excellence, like many challenges our city faces, requires leadership across multiple boundaries. Business, the scientific community, investors, educators, non-governmental organizations and all levels of government are implicated. As our citizens vote for leadership on the economy — the number one ranked issue in our city — it will be crucial to evaluate candidates based on their ability to convene and motivate broad coalitions that can work together to create a strong economic narrative for the next generation of Torontonians.

Original post at the Toronto Board of Trade.

Join us at MaRS for the mayoral debate, “Prosperity and the Economy” on September 8.