Iqaluit, the capital city of Canada's eastern Arctic Nunavut territory. What will it take to make communities like this centres of innovoation? Photo: The Canadian Press.Innovation has become one of those ubiquitous buzzwords used as part of the everyday jargon of business and politics. Governments, universities, industry and communities are all striving to be more innovative in their thinking, which ultimately translates into working smarter, not harder. This has led a number of researchers to think systematically about innovation, and the circumstances under which it flourishes. Richard Florida's "Creative Cities" thesis is representative of these, and argues that even in the age of the internet, creativity and innovation are linked to geographical proximity, and in particular, large cities:
“The proximity of talented, highly educated people has a powerful effect on innovation and economic growth…when large numbers of entrepreneurs, financiers, engineers, designers and other smart, creative people are constantly bumping into one another inside and outside work, business ideas are formed, sharpened, executed, and – if successful – expanded. The more smart people, and the denser the connections among them, the faster it all goes.”
Proximity is obviously not an advantage that the North enjoys. The region also, in Canada, lacks universities and population density. As a result, most northerners are not benefiting from much of the technological innovation being developed in the South. And this is a huge problem for improving self-sufficiency and community development.
I had the opportunity to take part in a conference on northern greenhouses last week. One of the things that struck me most was that the technology for northern communities to grow their own food – and for that matter, their own energy – already exists. It just hasn’t been transferred to the North. One researcher commented that there is “an insufficient awareness” on the part of northerners of existing technologies. But the flip side of that is the insufficient awareness of researchers about the opportunities, and needs, for different technologies in the North. In addition to new greenhouse and food chamber technologies, bio-mass fuelled district-heating would reduce dependence on diesel generators; insulation and glazing advances could make homes and buildings much more energy efficient, reducing heating bills; lightweight materials could replace heavier materials that are expensive to ship; and e-health and distance education technologies could improve access to services in the North. There are probably hundreds more of such ideas that could make the cost of living go down and the quality of life go up in the North if only they were applied more comprehensively.
Northern stakeholders should also focus on what Ken Coates calls “bundling innovation” – maximizing benefits from investments and innovations across the health, education, business, government, industry and entertainment sectors instead of isolating their use to one particular field. Finally, there’s a huge opportunity for northern and aboriginal economic development corporations to commercialize technologies from the South for use in the orth, first because southern firms haven’t been very active in doing so, and second because EDCs know the market, suppliers, and customers in the North and typically have a mandate to conduct business that benefits their members.
As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and there is a lot of necessity in the North. I am not an advocate of either small government or big government; but I think a smart government would start providing the strategic investments by which to make innovation transfer to the north happen faster.
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