Big Idea: Create a Set of “Canada 150 Goals and Prizes”

by Mike Moffatt & Hannah Rasmussen. Posted November 3, 2016


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In June, Canada 2020 launched The Innovation Project, an initiative devoted to studying Canada’s innovation agenda – the risks, the opportunities, and key factors involved in making Canada a more innovative nation.

As part of this project, we asked Mike Moffatt, Senior Associate at Canada 2020 and Director at the Lawrence Centre at Western University’s Ivey Business School and Hannah Rasmussen, Director at Projection North and Professor at Western University’s Brescia College, to consider how to foster innovative growth in Canada. 

Moffatt and the Canada 2020 team traveled to eight cities across Canada to hold roundtable discussions with key stakeholders representing sectors ripe for transformation. We are grateful for the thoughtful discussion and time these roundtable participants gave the effort. While the sectors themselves were very different, common themes emerged: talent and immigration, availability of venture capital and Canadians’ adversity to risk.

From their research and these roundtables, Moffatt and Rasmussen developed 10 Big Ideas for Canada. Canada 2020 will be releasing an idea a day on our website leading up to our 3rd Annual Canada 2020 Conference: The Innovation Agenda.

Each idea is thoughtful and detailed, and Canada 2020 hopes they will spur discussion and debate on the topic as we continue to explore innovation in Canada.   

Big Idea: Create A Set of “Canada 150 Goals” and “Canada 150 Prizes”

What is the idea?

Canada needs innovative thinking to solve some of the more difficult social and economic problems the country faces, such as:

  • A lack of safe drinking water and substandard housing on First Nations reserves.
  • A persistently large gender wage gap.
  • Growing rates of fentanyl and other opioid addiction.

To tackle these problems, we recommend the use of goals and prizes, which we have adapted from both the XPrize Foundation and the United Nations Millennium Development Goals.

Recommendation: The federal government should identify a set of measurable national goals, the Canada 150 Goals.(1)

Canada has already set some of these goals. Canada’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 certainly counts as a measurable national goal,(2) as does the prime minister’s commitment to “end boil-water advisories on First Nations reserves within five years.”(3) Canada’s goals should follow the SMART criteria :(4)

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-based

Some of the UN Millennium Development Goals have been criticized for being unachievable or lacking measurability; the Canada 150 Goals must avoid such goals.

Recommendation: The federal government should create a set of Canada 150 Prizes, with large cash prizes for projects that will help meet these goals.

The prizes are different from the goals, but they should be related to them. One such example is Canada’s emissions goal, and the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE:(5)

Goal: Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Prize: “The $20M NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE will challenge the world to reimagine what we can do with CO2 emissions by incentivizing and accelerating the development of technologies that convert CO2 into valuable products. These technologies have the potential to transform how the world approaches CO2 mitigation, and reduce the cost of managing CO2.”

In this way, the prizes assist Canada in achieving the final goals. Canada’s boil-water advisory goal could be matched with a prize for new water-treatment technologies, and the goal of reducing opioid addiction could be matched with a prize for treatment programs that prove to reduce addictions by a measurable amount.

These prizes would encourage investment of time and capital in finding innovative solutions to our goals and would incentivize Canadians to use their skills and imagination to solve some of the more difficult social and economic problems the country faces.

Recommendation: The federal government should ensure that Canada 150 Prize competitions are open to all Canadians.

Who will be responsible for administering the idea?

The Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development will be responsible for administering the Canada 150 prizes and identifying the formidable problems to be solved.

Recommendation: The federal government should hold open consultations with Canadians to determine the list of Canada 150 Goals and Canada 150 Prizes.

What mechanisms for accountability or measurement can be put in place for the idea?

One of the benefits of using a prize-based approach is that projects are only funded if they are successful, creating an automatic layer of accountability. The federal government must ensure that both the goals and the prizes have measurable criteria.

What failures is the idea trying to solve?

Regulatory Failure: A common theme that came up repeatedly in our roundtable was that governments were trying to do too much and were spreading innovation dollars around too thinly, rather than focusing on a few areas where it can realistically expect to succeed. There was a consensus that Canadian governments are too afraid to try to “pick winners,” and this aversion leads to a suboptimal use of resources. The Canada 150 Goals and Prizes are designed to “focus the mind” on a few key areas where Canada has the potential to be a world leader. By choosing specific problems to solve, we allow the government, firms and individuals to focus on developing and showcasing specific core competencies.

Risk Aversion: The Canadian government’s approach to risk aversion in the innovation sphere is to try to “de-risk” the space, by transferring risk from firms to governments. While appropriate in some circumstances, this approach does not teach Canadians how to take risks. Attaching large financial prizes to problems rewards risk-takers and creates an environment in which taking chances is more socially acceptable.

Evangelism: Canada currently has the world’s attention thanks, in part, to the international popularity of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. By choosing specific problems to solve and by having large prizes attached to solving them, the prime minister can use his star power to highlight our innovative clusters to the world and make Canada “the place to be” for innovation.

Inequality of Opportunity: A large segment of Canada’s population is left out of government programs on innovation because they do not know how to navigate a complex regulatory environment. Using prizes that anyone can access opens up government-driven innovation to all Canadians.

What are the potential benefits of the idea and what are the costs?

Benefits: The approach of goals and prizes forces the government to focus on a few key priority areas. Furthermore, since prizes are only awarded for success, there is little financial risk for the government. If no innovation occurs, no prizes are awarded.

Costs and Risks: As with most, if not all, innovation programs, the government could end up paying for innovations that would have happened without the program. Furthermore, the government may choose the wrong areas as “winning” ones and fail to incent innovation in areas with a greater chance for success.

Will the idea increase economic inclusion and/or enhance autonomy? If so, how?

Economic Inclusion: Since many of the goals will be around assisting vulnerable populations, successful completion of these goals will lead to an improved quality of life, a lower cost of living and higher incomes for those in need.

Autonomy: We would recommend that when choosing the Canada 150 Goals, the government try to have at least one or two that would be autonomy-increasing if successful.

Footnotes
1 Canada 150 is in reference to 2017 being the 150th anniversary of Confederation.
2 Margo McDiarmid, “Canada sets carbon emissions reduction target of 30% by 2030,” CBC News, May 15, 2015.
3 “Justin Trudeau vows to end First Nations reserve boil-water advisories within 5 years,” Canadian Press, December 18, 2015.
4 Robert L. Bogue, “Use S.M.A.R.T. goals to launch management by objectives plan,” TechRepublic, April 25, 2005.
5 NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE Overview (NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, 2016).