Research builds communities

November 23, 2011

It has become matter of great debate how well this country is doing when it comes to innovation. Recent global rankings have consistently shown Canada falling behind its peers in the innovation game. Perhaps the only point of general agreement is that the Canadian economy must be based on innovation to compete globally – and that our exceptionally high standard of living cannot be maintained without it.

One way to ensure global success is to put Canada’s strong research enterprise in the service of our communities. We need communities that rally around their local research and the role it plays in developing new and improved products, services and technologies and the jobs and prosperity this brings. Many of Canada’s vibrant, thriving communities are already doing this, and it is paying off.

Take, for instance, Hamilton. In the early 1900s, the Westinghouse Canada foundry and manufacturing plant in the industrial west end of the city was a hub of innovation, developing everything from a breaking system that became standard in cars across North America to components for the first radios. At its height, the company employed some 2,000 Hamiltonians and the research it conducted helped boost the city’s industrial might.

Today, this hub has been reborn. The McMaster Innovation Park, now taking shape on the former Westinghouse site, is bringing together all the players necessary for Hamilton to innovate for the 21st century. Here, entrepreneurs, small businesses and startups work side-by-side with researchers from government, hospitals, universities and colleges to commercialize research. The Park is just one piece of Hamilton’s burgeoning research and innovation enterprise. The region supports a renowned network of research hospitals, a college with a strong applied research agenda and one of the top research universities in the nation. Combine this with the fact that Hamilton is one of the top 10 places to do business in Canada, and it is clear that the city has developed a winning combination for fuelling its local economy. Research, in essence, is building this community.

These types of dynamic interactions among the people and institutions across the spectrum of society that believe in innovation have a profound impact on a community. It creates high-quality jobs, encourages industrial growth, sparks new enterprises and improves public infrastructure and services.

And universities and colleges, both large and small, play a significant role. They serve communities across the country by bringing people together and opening opportunities for collaboration, which helps support and build local vision. They also access federal government funding through such entities as the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the federal research funding agencies and programs such as the Centres of Excellence for Commercialization and Research and the Canada Research Chairs, which helps them produce the knowledge, the talented people and the facilities companies are tapping into to become more innovative and competitive.

Sustained investments in research excellence have allowed communities to keep their young people and provide them with good opportunities to contribute to society. They have also allowed communities to attract top researchers and students from around the world. Equipped with state-of-the-art tools they need to discover and innovate, these creative minds are bringing their ideas and their local and global experiences to our universities and colleges. This is particularly effective when their research is tied to the goals of their community — when it helps finds solutions to the problems facing their community.

The University of Prince Edward Island, for example, plays a critical role in a growing biosciences cluster, which focuses heavily on industries important to the island community, such as fisheries and agriculture. In Saskatoon, people from every walk of life rallied around the installation of Canada’s national synchrotron facility at the University of Saskatchewan. The research being done at the facility has helped revitalize the community, giving it a forward-looking sense of its role in the international research enterprise. And the oil sands industry in Alberta has recognized the value of the universities and colleges in that province. To ensure they don’t undermine the communities in which they operate, they look to researchers to make their industry more efficient and environmentally sound.

These clusters of expertise are not coincidental. Universities and colleges have to plan to create the right conditions for a productive research cluster to become established in their community. They need to build their capacity in a particular area of expertise by attracting talented people and investing in the key facilities that will support their work.

Companies see great value in these hubs of knowledge. They are setting up shop and working with bright research minds to access both their expertise and their equipment. It simply makes business sense. Working in these hubs, companies can field test new products, build brand recognition, attract new customers and create trusted relationships with institutions and researchers who are on the leading edge in their fields. Municipal governments play a key role in supporting and promoting the entire local research enterprise, pushing beyond Canada’s borders to reach into promising global markets.

According to a recent study, companies, governments and non-profit organizations, both foreign and domestic, contracted almost $2 billion worth of research from Canadian universities and affiliated teaching hospitals in 2008, up from $1.15 billion in 2006. The private sector alone is responsible for approximately $1 billion of that total. The study suggests that investing in a university or college for creating specific knowledge is a highly effective means of fostering innovation and the commercialization of research results.

This kind of private-sector involvement in research is also inspiring the next generation of innovators. Working with top researchers in world-class research facilities, students are learning how to solve real-world problems that impact their community. They acquire the skills they need to bring new ideas and innovative approaches to the workplace. And universities and colleges are supporting it by building programs and centres that encourage entrepreneurship and cross-sector collaboration — a move that helps bridge the gap between research and business. Communities benefit in the end when students graduate and enter the local workforce.

Our innovation challenges will not disappear over the short term. But by putting Canada’s robust research enterprise in the service of our communities, and having all sectors of society support and collaborate with that system in return, we will build thriving communities that have a better chance of succeeding at the innovation game.

Dr. Gilles G. Patry is the President and CEO of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.  Bob Bratina has been Mayor of Hamilton since December 2010.