Clean innovation will be increasingly critical to Canada's economic and environmental well-being in a changing world. On March 31, 2015, Sustainable Prosperity and partners brought together Canadian and global experts from academia, industry, government, and NGOs to discuss how Canada can accelerate the pace of clean innovation across all parts of the economy, with a particular focus on the key role that governments can play — through smart policy, investment, spending, etc. The videos of the conference sessions are now available. For each week in June, a new blog will be posted, covering each of the 4 conference sessions. This is Blog Post 3 of 4 (Stay tuned for Blog 4 next week).


While Session 1 set the stage for discussing clean innovation in Canada and Session 2 introduced some of the policy levers available to accelerate it, Session 3 was an opportunity for representatives from industry, government, funding bodies and academia to share their practical perspectives on efforts that support innovation in industry.

Why has innovation in the digital electronics market far outstripped progress in the clean energy sectors? When will Moore’s Law, which states that computing capacity doubles roughly every 2 years, kick-in for clean technology? The answer is never, according to John Alic, a consultant and former Senior Associate at the US Congress Office of Technology Assessment, and the first speaker in session 3. According to Alic, clean technologies, like wind energy, have and continue to face physical constraints unknown to the electronics sector. Alic recommended that in order for climate change to be mitigated, a huge boost to clean innovation beyond incremental improvements to fossil fuel efficiency would be needed. In Alic’s view, rather than relying mostly on market-based mechanisms to reduce GHG emissions, the government should treat climate change mitigation as a public good, like national defence or clean water. Government should step in to demonstrate a wide range of new large-scale technologies (as the US government has done in the past with rocket-propulsion and nuclear fission technologies), since these projects can be risky and there is not sufficient incentive for private industry to take the lead.

So what is the experience of those bodies, set up by government, to make clean innovation happen? Speakers from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC), and the Government of Alberta shared their thoughts from being on the funding side of innovation. Heather Campbell of SDTC and Kirk Andries of the CCEMC both stressed that their organizations took a strategic approach to funding, employing stringent due-diligence measures and ensuring that there is a real market-pull for the technologies being developed. Campbell drew attention to the urgency of adopting clean innovation technology in the oil sands industry not only to mitigate environmental impacts, but also to boost efficiency in an industry with high production costs. Andries made a number of recommendations for encouraging clean innovation, particularly the increased use of government procurement as a method of supporting fledgling clean technologies, setting-up government funded test centres, and focussing on raising public awareness of the urgent need for climate change mitigation. Justin Reimer of the Alberta Government applauded the multitude of successful partnerships and projects developed to advance clean innovation. He noted that the innovation ecosystem is very complex and government has to figure out how best to coordinate clean innovation efforts and resources within this ecosystem. Furthermore, both the public and private sectors must do a better job of communicating their successes to the public.

The third panel discussed the relevance of applied research to the oil and gas industry, and considered evolving approaches to R&D and Intellectual Property in the private sector. Jeremy de Beer, University of Ottawa, discussed how innovation has become much more open in the 21st century in two ways: first, companies have become much more open to collaborating with others, and second, the nature of new innovations has become less proprietary than during the 20th century. COSIA is an example of how modern companies are surmounting obstacles imposed by the patent regime to find novel solutions to common problems. De Beer recommended that we take a fresh look at existing market-framework policies, particularly the IP framework, and test these policies against the realities of private sector innovation in the 21st century.

Steve Larter, University of Calgary, assessed the role of Canada’s universities in clean innovation. He believes that innovation must start at the universities, and that Canada must do a better job at using its universities to trigger clean innovation. One way to measure the level of innovation coming out of universities is by the number of “spinouts”, companies started by university professors, students and post-docs. America’s leading universities far outstrip Canada’s in bringing innovations to market via spinouts. Reasons for this include Canada’s cultural and funding focus on education rather than innovation at universities, insufficient funding for innovation from the public and private sectors, and the diffusion of funds and focus over too many small projects rather than several large-scale ambitious collaborations between industry and academia. The final speaker of this panel was Juan Benitez of Cenovus, who recounted the innovation success story of SAGD (steam-assisted gravity drainage) bitumen extraction — a method that results in significantly less surface disruption and tailings generation than surface mining. Benitez also spoke to the change in corporate culture around innovation, increasingly finding solutions to problems by looking outside the company and oil sands sector altogether. Although oil companies must approach costly projects with caution, the advent of COSIA and the proposed future introduction of government-funded test-centres would help a great deal in mitigating risk and encouraging investment in clean innovation in the future.

This third session offers a diverse array of opinions on how to boost innovation in Canada. Watch the session and tell us what you think on Facebook or tweet us @sustpro. Stay tuned for next week’s blog covering the fourth and final session, or watch the video here.