Image via WikipediaTORONTO (IDN) - Immigration and innovation are closely linked, and because innovation is the sine qua non of competitiveness in the twenty-first century world, immigrants as innovators play a critical role in boosting Canada's global competitiveness.
This is the main thrust of a new research report by the Conference Board of Canada released in October 2010. The 60-page study by Michelle Downie is intended to help government and business recognize the potential value of immigration to innovation performance, which would make Canada a more innovative country. Underlying the report is a comprehensive approach to understanding and quantifying the relationship between immigration and innovation.
In an attempt to find a convincing reply to whether immigrants are making Canada more innovative, Downie argues, "immigrants are by definition seekers of a better way -- the very embodiment of innovation". The purpose of the research report, he adds, is to test this presumption.
Therefore,it examines different dimensions of innovation across areas such as research, the culture sector, business, and global commerce, as well as at the level of the individual immigrant, the firm, and the national and international economy. "At every level of analysis, immigrants are shown to have an impact on innovation performance that is benefiting Canada," concludes Downie.
The report titled 'Immigrants as Innovators: Boosting Canada’s Global Competitiveness' also highlights actions that Canada can take to develop the innovative capacities of immigrants and harness the benefits of immigrant-driven innovation.
The report comes at the right point in time. According to the latest Global Competitiveness Report 2010-2011, released by the World Economic Forum, Canada has slipped from ninth to tenth place. The United States is fourth behind Switzerland, Sweden and Singapore.
Until recently, Canada topped for having minimum procedures for starting a new business and held a respectable ninth position for the time required to start a business.
Canada has indeed the potential to be higher than its present position with the second largest territorial mass in the world, rich with natural resources, including the increasingly scarce resource of clean water and a low population density at 34 million people.
More immigrants per capita than any other country in the world move to Canada every year. In 2006, Canada welcomed 251,511 immigrants, most of them highly skilled, through its doors. Yet there is a pressing need for more immigration, the Conference Board estimates that 375,000 new immigrants are required every year in order to stabilize the workforce and ensure economic growth.
At present, however, Canada is a consistent below-average performer in its capacity to innovate: ranks 14th out of 17 industrialized countries in the Board's report card.
The Conference Board is an independent, not-for-profit applied research organization in Canada, affiliated with, The Conference Board, Inc. of New York, which serves nearly 2,000 companies in 60 nations and has offices in Brussels and Hong Kong.
The conclusions of the Conference Board's report are indirectly backed by Steven Johnson's latest book 'Where good ideas come from: The natural history of innovation'. The renowned author takes a look at how some of the world's greatest thinkers came to the conclusions that changed our world. He argues that the lone genius is the exception rather than the rule, and that innovation is usually a far slower, more collaborative process.
Johnson defines innovation as occurring when "we take ideas from other people -- from people we've learned from, from people we run into in the coffee shop, and we stitch them together into new forms, and we create something new. This means that we have to change some of our models of what innovation and deep thinking really looks like."
He calls this the "liquid network" -- an environment that enables the coming together of ideas, in sometimes unpredictable but satisfying combinations.
"Job creation, the success of our entrepreneurial class and our economic vitality here in Canada depends on the creation of these liquid networks," said Gordon Nixon, president of the Royal Bank of Canada at a conference on innovation.
"Earlier this month (October 4, 2010) the Globe and Mail announced the findings of a C-Suite survey, which puts the blame for this country's poor track record on innovation squarely on C-Suite executives. According to my peers who were polled for this study, the two top factors important in explaining weak Canadian productivity is business leaders' risk aversion and a culture of complacency... This is a country that to a large degree has been built by newcomers willing to take risks," he added.
He said those attitudes should now help Canada shift to a culture of innovation at a time when many established executives are complacent and risk-averse.
Immigrants face too many "onerous and unnecessary" obstacles which limit their potential to inject life into the country's flailing innovation performance and full participating in the economy.
"Innovation, R&D, Venture Capital -- that is the equation we must solve for and they are all interrelated.
"I say this because Canada's labour productivity level in the business sector has been lower than that of the US for almost 50 years. And a recent report by the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity shows that if the GDP per capita gap between the US and Canada were closed, Canadian families would have $12,200 more in annual personal disposable income," Nixon pointed out.
"Canada cannot continue to ask immigrants to sacrifice their short-term success in the interests of future generations. The impact of this lost productivity on our collective prosperity cannot be overstated. As the country begins to climb out of the recession, the government needs to engage Canadians, both new and old, and begin a discussion on our future and our immigration program," writes Ratna Omidvar, president of the Toronto-based Maytree Foundation, an agency promoting workplace diversity and author of Canada's Immigration Score: Recommendations for a Win-Win, published in the July-August issue of Policy Options.
There is a lack of recognition of international experience and qualifications which leads to discrimination or underutilization of their skills.
According to research by Naomi Alboim, Ross Finnie and Ronald Meng published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP), Canada should provide more points for young people and fewer for work experience. As it is, international experience is discounted by a factor of almost 70 per cent by employers in labour market. To continue to allot points for international work experience is disingenuous at best. Younger people, even those with little work experience, have long careers ahead of them to contribute to the Canadian economy.
Business leaders must take a stronger lead in addressing these challenges. Employers can start by conveying a strong message to new Canadians that they value them as creators, innovators and highly skilled workers whose performance improves results. They should also take advantage of the fact that immigrants can open doors to investment opportunities overseas and help attract foreign investment in Canada.
According to an OECD study, diversity has also been associated with an increase in patents. More than a quarter of patents in Canada have foreign co-inventors.
Two prime examples of how integrating immigrant workers can bolster innovation are:
Xerox Canada, with half of its staff who are immigrants from 35 different countries, credits immigrants with boosting its innovation rate, which has reached about 130 patentable ideas a year. It says its staff are also helping the company better compete in a global market.
Toronto-based Steam Whistle Brewing, the beer maker with more than half of the management team as immigrants, says the composition means a stronger work ethic, while foreign-born workers bring new techniques and fresh perspectives to the job. It also helps them understand a diverse marketplace.
"I absolutely believe that ongoing immigration is going to turbo-charge this economy going forward," said Loudon Owen, managing partner of venture capital firm McLean Watson Capital.
Immigrants have a fresh view of Canada, and bring ideas from their country of origin that may be new to Canada, he said. "They are often driven to succeed in ways that Canadians aren't," he added.
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