Governor-General David Johnston is set to announce the creation of national innovation awards in an effort to highlight some of Canada’s top entrepreneurs on a global stage.

Mr. Johnston will unveil the Governor-General’s Innovation Awards in an Economic Club of Canada speech in Ottawa on Tuesday. The annual initiative will focus on the country’s trailblazers and creators and celebrate their successes. The awards will be given to young innovators, established entrepreneurs and teams whose work has had an impact.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, he said he hopes the idea will “put a spotlight on innovation, to try to scale up and spread out the good stories, and to develop a culture of innovation, not simply technological but social.”

Canada is awash with smart graduates, great universities and energetic entrepreneurs, yet this country lags in innovation – which has long-term consequences for prosperity. The Conference Board has long given Canada a D for innovation, citing low levels of research and development and venture capital investment.

The ailing performance has taken on greater importance in light of lower commodity prices and as other countries, such as Mexico, gain market share in manufacturing. At the same time, governments have been tightening budgets, leaving little room for big spending on the public sector. Innovation is a promising way to both help economic growth and improve the quality of people’s lives.

“It’s taken on new urgency, because the world is more competitive and more connected, and it’s changing faster,” he said in an hour-long interview.

That means not just technological and business innovation, but social innovation too. “We have to be more innovative if we want to continue to promise to our children that life will be better for them than it was for their parents. A great theme, the great idea of Canada is: immigrate to Canada and life will be better for your children than it was for you … That’s open to question today, with this generation.

“First of all, the cost of purchasing a house in certain parts of the country – heavens, shouldn’t we be more innovative in how we build cheaper housing? We have really healthy communities and pretty unhealthy communities and that calls for social innovation.”

In most global innovation rankings, Canada does not appear in the top 10. And in Boston Consulting Group’s latest list of the world’s most innovative companies, no Canadian firm made the list. (BlackBerry used to, before its troubles.)

There’s much room for improvement, Mr. Johnston said. In intellectual property rights, we “need to do much more in understanding the protection of ideas and their creation.” In education, Canada needs more tradespeople, more training in “soft” skills such as communication, and more graduates who are entrepreneurs – “the people who create the jobs for other people.” Canadians need to scour the world for good ideas and learn from other countries.

In research and development, “our public investment in R&D is quite promising by comparative standards. Our private investment is quite lacking,” he said, adding that industry should be more actively involved in areas such as accelerator programs and impact investing.

Part of the challenge is cultural, he said. “With respect to innovation, our greatest enemy would be complacency,” said Mr. Johnston, who has been governor general since 2010 and was previously president at the University of Waterloo.

“In part, it comes from being a country that hasn’t had a war in our borders for 200 years. We have been blessed with natural resources … We have had good civil order,” and a huge U.S. market that has been relatively easy destination for exports, he said. “We have had all of those things to our advantage and yet … we’ve taken these blessings for granted. And lacking that external foe, the challenges, we’ve been content just to live comfortably.”

He says he’s surprised that Canada has not been quicker to develop green technology. And he says foundations could play a greater role in helping to build what he calls a “smart and caring nation.”

The Canada Foundation for Innovation will manage the process, which will also have involvement from the Canadian Science and Technology Museums Corporation. The Globe is one of the partners of the new awards, with the inaugural ceremony slated for next year.

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Jun. 09, 2015 6:00AM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Jun. 09, 2015 6:00AM EDT