Letter in response to “Positioning Canada to Lead: An Inclusive Innovation Agenda”

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In early October, in collaboration with post secondary institutions, thought leaders, and partners, the following letter was sent to the Honourable Navdeep Singh Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development; the Honourable Bardish Chagger, Minister of Small Business and Tourism; and the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science. We invite you to read on and join the conversation.


Dear Ministers Bains, Chagger and Duncan,

We are writing in response to your call to action for Positioning Canada to Lead: An Inclusive Innovation Agenda and specifically your question:”How do we work together to better equip our young people with the right skill sets for the economy of the future?”

The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation is a private foundation that works in Canada on systemic social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges. Through granting and investing, convening, and co-creation with grantees, partners and the public, including the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, as well as the undersigned colleges, universities, national charities, and the Royal Bank of Canada we support social innovation and social finance initiatives aligned with our mission.

Students graduating from our post-secondary institutions will inherit some of the most complex challenges our society has ever faced. They need academic and hands-on skills, collaborative capacity, critical knowledge, global perspective, and a drive to serve the common good.

We wholeheartedly agree that “The goal of education should be to make every Canadian ‘innovation ready’—ready to spot opportunities, imagine possibilities, discover new ideas, learn and grow.” Additionally, it is also our experience that, as you say, “support needs to be provided to entrepreneurs who aspire to turn their ideas into successful businesses that improve people’s lives and make the world a better place”.

Innovation is key to human development. It is imperative to move beyond innovation for innovation’s sake to purposeful innovation that contributes socially and economically while also creating positive and / or reducing negative impacts on our natural resources. The term “inclusive growth” refers to an important and insufficiently acknowledged economic opportunity.

In our experience, there are several key attributes emerging on many Canadian campuses that support social entrepreneurs and social innovators:

  • increasing accessibility and volume of entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship and social innovation programming
  • student clubs, events, community collaborations and networks designed to increase capacity for innovation
  • a growing number of interdisciplinary and intersectoral partnerships oriented to social impact education through experiential learning, co-op courses, knowledge mobilization and other community or work-integrated activities
  • a new culture of sharing best practices through participation in provincial incubation and accelerator programming (entrepreneurship), the national RECODE network (social innovation), the national ResearchImpact network and the international Ashoka network (social entrepreneurship).
  • place-based partnerships designed to align university/college resources and community capacity to address community and neighbourhood social issues: poverty, homelessness, refugee settlement, etc
  • a growing appreciation at all levels from research funders, administrators, researchers, students and non-academic partners of the desire to not only produce world leading research outputs but to also to translate those outputs into social, economic and environmental benefits for Canadians through mechanisms including social innovation, social enterprise and knowledge translation/mobilization

We believe that there are several areas in which the Canadian government could usefully intervene in order to increase social impact and innovation activities that address the complex challenges we face, and enable our post-secondary sector to be a “leader in promoting social enterprise and social innovation”.

Policy ideas

  • integrating social entrepreneurship and social innovation as core tenets of our innovation policy by sponsoring a policy dialogue or creating a national committee for social innovation between government and sector experts to share successes and failures of innovative practices, and develop policy recommendations for the continued integration and support of social enterprise and social innovation within businesses and non-profits in Canada.
  • supporting the integrated exploration and application of technological, social/environmental and business innovation to develop solutions to complex challenges by providing national funding sources for scholars pursuing interdisciplinary research in the areas of technology, business, and social enterprise
  • incentivize cross sectoral collaboration in research and teaching
  • Collaborating with the provinces to allocate and compile start-up funding sources for interested non-profit or private sector organizations.
  • expanding support for multi-disciplinary and cross-sector solutions-generating collaboration platforms as core features of the innovation ecosystem; as the Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences said it is necessary to “bring researchers from different disciplines together with leaders in all levels of government, the private sector and civil society…”*. There is a diverse and growing spectrum of collaboration platforms, including change and social innovation labs.

Program ideas

  • generating positive signals to the post-secondary institutions that social entrepreneurship and social purpose are federally supported fields
  • more explicitly aligning the innovation system’s expenditures toward innovation pursuits that tackle social and environmental problems
  • Including social innovation hubs as an integral part of the clusters strategy and pipeline system for innovation, outlined in Canada’s Innovation Strategy
  • creating incentives for regional and national platforms/networks for campus community collaboration and holding those platforms to account for short-term (three-year) outcomes that will generate long term (5-10 year) economic, social and environmental impacts.

Talent ideas

  • increasing opportunities for access to those less frequently represented within entrepreneurship programs, particularly women, minorities, refugees, Indigenous peoples and youth who may not self-identify as potential entrepreneurs, or who may be in programs outside business schools
  • helping young people develop their self-awareness, collaborative abilities, innovative thinking and other core skills that they will need to succeed in a rapidly changing job market
  • allow young people to better understand the complex social and environmental challenges that exist today and encourage them to work with others to generate ideas that can be prototyped and scaled
  • support co-ops and work-integrated learning programs in all academic faculties (not just business) to help students build the skills and experience required to enter the work force. Include all types of businesses from SMEs and non-profits to multi-national corporations in these programs.

We are encouraged by the growing trend towards social impact education that is occurring across Canadian post-secondary institutions, community programs, and government projects. Please see the attached appendix for specifics.

We look forward to working with you to inform and sustain those efforts through collaborative, skills-enhancing and experiential opportunities tied to social innovation and entrepreneurship. We will follow up with your offices shortly.

Stephen Huddart, President and Chief Executive Officer – The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation
Barbara Steele, Executive Director – Ashoka Canada
Boris Martin, CEO – Engineers Without Borders Canada
Dr. Johanne Turbide, Professor and Director of Sustainability – HEC Montréal
Anita Abraham, Executive Director – Meal Exchange
Michael Quinn, Associate Vice-President, Research, Scholarship and Community Engagement – Mount-Royal University
Dr. Sara Diamond, President and Vice-Chancellor – Ontario College of Art and Design University
David Phipps, Network Director – ResearchImpact-RéseauImpactRecherche
Valerie Chort, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship and Executive Director, RBC Foundation – Royal Bank of Canada
Steve Grundy, Vice-President Academic and Provost – Royal Roads University
Dr. Usha George, Interim Vice-President, Research and Innovation – Ryerson University
Vanessa Williamson, Dean, Applied Research and Innovation – Seneca College
Andrew Petter, President and Vice-Chancellor – Simon Fraser University
Franco J. Vaccarino, President and Vice-Chancellor – University of Guelph
H.E.A. (Eddy) Campbell, President and Vice-Chancellor – University of New Brunswick
Norah McRae, Director of the Office of Community University Engagement and Executive Director of Co-operative Education and Career Services – University of Victoria
Joanne Benham Rennick, Executive Director, Schlegel Centre for Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation – Wilfrid Laurier University
Mamdouh Shoukri, C.M., O.Ont., Ph.D., P.Eng, President and Vice-Chancellor – York University

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