A Response to the "Strategic Plan" of the
Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation

by D.M.R. Bentley

"A land of hope and sunshine where little towns spread their square streets and their trim maples beside placid lakes within echo of the primeval forest." So Stephen Leacock describes Ontario in the preface to his Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912). The inspiration for the recently circulated Strategic Plan by the Ontario Research and Innovation Council (ORIC) of the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation is no longer quite the "land of hope and sunshine" that it was in Leacock’s eyes, let alone a province consisting largely of little towns with maple-lined streets. It is a much more urban and industrialized Ontario whose economy is under great and increasing pressure from a variety of sources, not least the rising Asian economies, the faltering "domestic" car industry, and a strengthened Canadian dollar. It is a province in urgent, if not yet desperate, need of what the ORIC Strategic Plan aims to provide: a strategy to bring "businesses, academic institutions and government ministries" together in the service of common good: the "creation of an innovation culture" that will help to ensure Ontario’s future economic prosperity (1).

    At the heart of the ORIC Strategic Plan lie two quite sound assumptions. The more general of these comes from the nineteenth-century English economist David Ricardo, who argues in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817) that the key to prosperity lies in "comparative advantage"1— that is, in focusing on areas of relative strength and relying to a great extent on trading partners for other needs. As might be expected of a document emanating from a Liberal government, the second of the Strategic Plan’s core assumptions is that the so-called Finnish (or Irish) model for generating innovation is more appropriate for Ontario than the alternative Silicon Valley model, which relies heavily on spontaneous activity in the private sector rather than government initiatives. Part of the purpose of the Strategic Plan is thus to identify areas of "comparative advantage" for enhancement through government support, a process that has apparently already brought forward a number of fairly predictable candidates such as sustainability, health sciences, and information and communications technologies. It is to be hoped that, as consultations continue, further possibilities are brought forward, especially in the area of the resource industries that have traditionally been a mainstay of Ontario’s northern economy.

    Of course, a Strategic Plan running to only twenty-six pages and intended to generate discussion will and should be lean on specifics. Nevertheless, the Plan’s outline of the ways and means by which the ORIC intends to foster and sustain an "innovative culture" would have benefitted from some indication of whether or not the government envisages the creation of an Ontario equivalent of Alberta Ingenuity and its counterparts in Quebec, British Columbia, and elsewhere. On the basis of a billion-dollar endowment fund and other resources, Alberta Ingenuity supports several Research Centres, a Student Scholarship Program, and a newsletter (Innovation Alberta).2 Does the Ontario Government intend to create a similar fund and agency? If so, what size of endowment is envisaged and what sort of agency? If not, then how and with what monies will an "innovation culture" be fostered, showcased "nationally and internationally" (4), and, most important, sustained over time?

    Another noticeable weakness of the Strategic Plan is its reliance on notions of innovation that are well in arrears of current thinking about the nature and creation of the sorts of "new ideas" and "opportunities" that are likely to generate economic prosperity. "Knowledge-based education," "training," "skills," and similar terms and phrases appear at several points in the Strategic Plan, but "creative ideas" only once, and the document as whole makes no reference to the recent and growing recognition that concepts have become at least as important to innovation and prosperity as knowledge and skills.3 No longer is innovation understood merely as the manufacture and introduction of new and useful products, but, rather, as the creation and promotion of products that are also stylish— that have panache, cachet, even sprezzatura, as well as novelty and utility. A recent case in point is the Apple iPhone, which, by an illuminating coincidence, was launched on the same day that the ORIC Strategic Plan was scheduled for discussion by the University of Western Ontario’s Research Board: although scarcely innovative in the earlier sense of the term, the iPhone created a sensation because of the stylishness of its incorporation of existing touch-screen technology— in a word, its "coolness." Within hours, the shares of Apple had risen by 8.3% and the shares of RIM, whose BlackBerry had of course created a similar sensation for similar reasons, had dropped by 7.7%, a fate shared less dramatically by the shares of Palm, Inc.. Today the stylish "diversifying of the face of knowledge" of which Samuel Johnson wrote in 1734— the ability to create fresh and appealing "looks" and to generate an accompanying "buzz."— can be crucial to economic prosperity. "We don’t make ‘automobiles’," the near-legendary designer Chris Bangle has said of BMW/Mini/ Rolls Royce; "[we make] moving works of art that express the driver’s love of quality."

    To the extent that in a global and multicultural world "diversifying the face of knowledge" is crucial to innovation not only in itself but also in ways that Dr. Johnson never envisaged, Ontario has the distinct advantage of being a cultural and linguistic mosaic that teems, in theory at least, with stylistic potential. As the Tobago-born Toronto poet Dionne Brand observes, "Toronto has never happened before.... It hasn’t ever happened before because of all these different types of people, different kinds of experience , ... have just not been in the same place together before." Despite the work of Richard Florida on the role of diversity in generating creativeness,4 the ORIC Strategic Plan makes no mention of its role in generating an "innovation culture." It is also silent on the Arts and makes only one passing reference to the possible contribution of the Humanities to realizing the "economic benefits of innovation." The emphasis of the Strategic Plan on science and technology is necessary and understandable, but by scanting the Arts and Humanities it gravely underestimates, not only the economic importance of Ontario’s cultural industry, but also the importance of design in the creation of successful products like Bangle’s "moving works of art" and the importance of language— indeed, languages— in promoting them (or, as the cliché has it, telling their story) around the world.5 The split and arc-shaped keyboard and convergence technology of the BlackBerry was crucial to its success, but its inspired and witty name was also a contributing factor, as, no doubt, was the eloquent advertising campaigns that accompanied and followed its launch.

    To its great credit, the Strategic Plan advocates the "celebrat[ion]" of "innovation and innovators ... at every opportunity, whether in schools, institutions, industry or the marketplace" as an important element of an "innovation culture"(17). Having done so, however, it places exclusive emphasis on the scientific, engineering, and business communities, ignoring entirely areas such as design and advertising to which the Arts and Humanities can make valuable contributions that should also be celebrated.6 One way of doing this would be through a series of ORIC sponsored awards in design, advertising, and related areas that would honour and support achievement and potential at the school and college/university levels and beyond. In conjunction with these awards, past and present winners and other participants could be brought together in annual workshops to create and deepen the Ontario tradition of excellence in such areas as design and advertising without which the "Ontario ‘innovation brand’" described in the Strategic Plan’s final pages will not be developed and sustained.

    On a number of occasions the Toronto designer Bruce Mau has suggested book-publishing as a model for innovation, the reason being that it is goal- and profit-oriented, subject to sharp time constraints, and dependent on a combination of artistic creativeness, technical expertise, and critical acumen. Perhaps no better examples of this model at work and of the combination of creative, technical, and entrepreneurial abilities that it exemplifies is the English author and illustrator Beatrix Potter, who has been the subject of a recent biography by Linda Lear and a recent movie starring Renée Zellweger. When a German manufacturer started producing Peter Rabbit dolls and selling them at Harrods department store in London, Potter pronounced them "very ugly" and proceeded to design her own version. She then designed a Peter Rabbit game, Peter Rabbit wallpaper, and a series of colouring books based on her creations. In subsequent years, she exercised final approval on an ever-growing range of merchandise that included china, slippers, handkerchiefs, and modern editions of her books. According to Sally Floyer, the managing director of the firm that still publishes Potter’s books, her creative and merchandising skills were innovative, far-sighted, and, not incidentally, made her wealthy enough to secure her independence, to purchase a property in England’s Lake District, and to bequeath a substantial part of that historied area to the National Trust for conservation. It is by encouraging, supporting, attracting, celebrating, and rewarding those who individually and collaboratively possess the gifts and spirit of Beatrix Potter that, in the words of the final section of the ORIC Strategic Plan, "Ontario will build and benefit from an innovation culture ... that values and nurtures creativity for the benefit of all citizens."

    As a step in that direction, the ORIC Strategic plan is welcome, laudable, and promising. It is also frustratingly lean on detail, dismayingly tired in some of its ideas and language, and regrettably reticent on the potential contribution of the Arts and Humanities to the creativity that is essential to innovation. These weaknesses may yet be strengths, however, if, during and after the consultation process— and across a broad spectrum of the province’s richly diverse culture— they help to foster, focus, and facilitate a mobilization of the thoughtfulness, imaginativeness, originality, ingenuity, improvisation, inventiveness, versatility, adroitness, freshness, stylishness, and enterprisingness without which there will be no "innovation culture" in Ontario.


  1. This term appears without attribution in Section 4 of the Strategic Plan (14). Here and above all parenthetical page numbers refer to the Plan. [back]
  2. In light of the Strategic Plan’s emphasis on exposing students to “experiential-based learning through mentorships, apprenticeships and co-op programs” (18), schools, colleges, and universities bent on creating and/or enhancing such arrangements might do well to look closely at the Kaospilots project in Denmark, which has an enviable record of producing graduates who are innovative as well as environmentally and socially responsible: according to a recent estimate, one in four of its graduates start their own business, part of the reason being the project’s demand that its students concentrate, not on getting jobs, but on creating them. [back]
  3. See, for example, Daniel H. Pink, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information to the Conceptual Age (2005). [back]
  4. See The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), Cities and the Creative Class (2005), and The Flight of the Creative Class (2005). [back]
  5. Many academics, especially in the Arts and Humanities, worry that their independence as researchers and teachers will be compromised by involvement with the corporate world, but there are many ways in which teaching and research at the college and university levels can usefully contribute without compromise to the “innovation culture” envisaged by the ORIC Strategic Plan.
    Urging students to reach for fresh formulations and combinations of ideas and concepts, involving them in research that advances and tests new possibilities, and inviting them to tackle— or, better, propose— projects that challenge received notions all encourage ways of thinking and proceeding that are congenial to innovation beyond academia while also contributing to the health of academic disciplines. [back]
  6. See http://www.canadianpoetry.ca/BillandTed.htm for a discussion of the founding (in 1861) of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Company, an entrepreneurial alliance of “artsies” and “techies” (Morris was a poet, Marshall was a surveyor, and Faulkner was a mathematician) that produced manifold innovations in the design and manufacture of furniture, wallpaper, tapestry, stained glass, and, of course, printing and typefaces that led to the Arts and Crafts Movement and helped to generate the artistic and technological innovations of Modernism. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Company lies centrally in the background of Laura Ashley and it has contemporary counterparts in such firms as Alex McDowell’s Matter, an international organization of scientists, artists, and designers whose focus is the movie industry. [back]