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Innovation Nation: How America is Losing Its Innovation Edge, Why It Matters and What We Can Do To Get It Back

By John Kao

Free Press, $29.99,

Instead of a New Year’s resolution, I have a confession. I didn’t watch Brian Melo win Canadian Idol. Never phoned in a vote. Didn’t put up Go Brian Go posters. Didn’t download Melo music, surf Melo YouTube clips or pay attention to the Melo-mania media coverage.

But I did tune in for CNN Heroes – An All-Star Tribute. That’s the global telecast where Burlington teen Kayla Cornale won the Young Wonders Award. Kayla created a way of using music to communicate with people living with autism. Along with the CNN honours, Kayla’s been named one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 and has won a whack of awards at regional, national and international science fairs. She’s now at Stanford University on a science scholarship.

Not to take anything away from Brian. I’m sure he’s a great performer and a stand-up guy. I’m glad he won and I wish him all the best. But it’s innovators and not pop stars who will keep our community’s competitive edge sharp.

Here’s why. Innovation holds the key to sustainable economic growth and prosperity, says author and innovation guru John Kao. He defines innovation "as the ability of individuals, companies and entire nations to continuously create their desired future. It is about new ways of doing and seeing things as much as it is about the breakthrough idea."

It’s innovation that will solve what Kao calls wicked problems. You know the list. Climate change. Environmental degradation. Communicable diseases. Education. Potable water. Poverty. Renewable energy.

"Wicked problems hold the keys to making the most consequential breakthroughs of the 21st century," says Kao. "They become opportunities when flipped on their heads. Innovation applied to a wicked problem can realize an enormous amount of social and economic value by setting new commercial standards, creating new businesses and generating new sources of value. For a country that aspires to become an Innovation Nation, the search for opportunities to do good and still do well will allow it to exercise its innovation muscle."

So imagine if Hamilton flexed its muscle and went from Steeltown to Innovation Town? What if we solved wicked problems like Randall Reef, industrial brownfields, lousy air quality and brutal poverty rates?

And what if we then turned our know-how and made-in-Hamilton solutions into lucrative global exports and the world beat a path to our door?

Sound crazy? Check out what’s happening in innovation hubs south of the border and around the world. California’s invested $100 million over four years in each of four Institutes for Science and Innovation. The institutes are driving leading-edge innovation in biomedicine and bioengineering, nanosystems, telecommunications and information technology.

In North Carolina, there’s the Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle Park, a 7,000-acre technology centre with 100 facilities and three university partners. And there’s a thriving and innovative community college network, serving 800,000 students at 300 sites.

If a company needs an employee trained in a subject not currently offered, the college network will create a program to get the job done so long as the company pledges to add 12 jobs in the coming year.

Denmark’s a world leader in wind power and controls 40 per cent of the global market in high-tech wind turbines. Government, private sector and trade union alliances are fostered through the prime minister’s Innovation Council, education minister’s Learning Lab and the economy minister’s Mind Lab, a creativity incubator.

And then there’s Singapore, an island-nation that aims to be the global leader in biotechnology. They’ve spent $300 million to create Biopolis.

It’s a research centre that’s home to 2,000 world-renowned scientists (with long term plans to assemble a team of 10,000 very smart people).

Modelled after Silicon Valley, Biopolis is a mix of government institutes, biotech start-ups and pharmaceutical multinationals.

As a recruitment tool to lure the world’s best and brightest, there’s a new entertainment district going up next to Biopolis that will feature Singapore’s largest concert venue, an extreme sports centre, high-end shopping and gourmet restaurants. To stock Biopolis with homegrown talent, Singapore’s Economic Development Board set the goal of attracting 10 world-class universities and institutes by 2008. They met that goal five years ago.

Talent may be the biggest stumbling block if North America makes a run at re-establishing ourselves as an Innovation Nation.

"While our competitor nations focus on educating and training engineers and inventors, our schools are turning out youngsters who are better consumers than they are creators," says Kao.

"It has been well – and painfully – documented in opinion polls that most high school students would rather take out the trash, clean their bedrooms or wash dishes than study math or science."

Teens would rather line up for a 30-second shot at Canadian Idol fame than invest months of hard work to compete in a regional science fair.

Speaking of which, while Canadian Idol holds auditions in Hamilton this March, hundreds of local teens will be competing in the 48th annual Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair in Oakville. It’s the same fair where Kayla rolled out her award-winning science project. For the future of our community, here’s hoping we know where to focus our attention and who to get most excited about. Who knows. If these young wonders feel the love now, they just might decide to launch their careers and build innovative companies in their hometown.

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