Innovation comes in many forms with endless benefits

Content provided by The Globe and Mail

In the spring of 2010, Kate Moran had a front-row view of the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as one of the top science advisers who helped direct the emergency response to the disaster.

What she learned there – about the arrogance of industry, the gaps in monitoring and the power of innovation – has shaped her goal to protect the pristine coast of British Columbia in her current job as head of Ocean Networks Canada.

Dr. Moran was lured to the University of Victoria – from her position as assistant director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy – because of its world-leading ocean science programs, which put a network of undersea observatories off the B.C. coast at her fingertips.

Leveraging Ocean Networks’ technology, Dr. Moran, who also serves as chair of the Vancouver-based Centre of Excellence for Marine Transportation, hopes to expand the marine safety network on the West Coast, using real-time data measuring waves and currents to provide ships with better intelligence about the sea state, marine life and other traffic around them.

Over the past two weeks, The Globe and Mail’s B.C. bureau has focused on innovation in all its stripes, from urban design to biodiversity, from indigenous health to the business of fish waste.

But to keep programs like Ocean Networks afloat, B.C. needs to nurture its innovators and attract the talent that will produce the next big ideas.

KPMG’s 2014 report card on B.C.’s technology industry concludes the province is not doing enough. Using business metrics such as the rate of investment in research and development, and the number of patent applications granted, the province scores poorly against other Canadian jurisdictions, and in some cases is on a downward trend.

The tech sector is not the only measure of innovation, but it can serve as a bellwether. And while British Columbia has many of the ingredients to be a lively incubator, by the cold accounting of business it falls below its potential.

Glen Clark is president of Canada’s largest privately held company, the Jim Pattison Group. He believes the need for innovation is growing.

“The disruption caused by the speed of technological change and the elimination of global barriers accelerates the need for innovation,” he said. “I think that the pace of innovation, generally, is faster than at any time in the past. Companies that fail to invest in innovation quickly disappear. British Columbia has some real advantages – excellent education system, superb quality of life, to name two, that equip our people to innovate and compete.”

But David Castle, UVic’s head of research, says there is something missing.

To nurture greater innovation, he said, government and industry need to trust that research is an investment, not an expense, and that the benefits, sometimes, cannot be measured in sales. In those terms, improving the safety of marine traffic off the B.C. coast does not require a business case, but an understanding that it is of benefit to British Columbia.

“When we talk about innovation we are talking about new products, new services, new ways of doing things,” he said. “That shows up in stark terms in terms of how productive we are, and that shows up in GDP. But there are also intangibles, how do we handle political or legal matters. Social innovation can have direct impacts on our lives. It makes us wealthier, more prosperous not only as a province but as a country.”

Dr. Castle believes British Columbia lags because it is trapped by its long-standing reliance on resource extraction.

“Your economy, your government and its policies are all structured around fish, water, forestry, mining. There is nothing wrong with those, but the key for me is that we need diversity in the economy so we are not whipped around by ebbs and flows in commodity prices.”

There are encouraging signs. In the past two years, the province’s tech sector has outperformed other industry sectors, in revenue, wages and economic growth. It is responsible for 7.6 per cent of the provincial economy, and employs more people than the forestry, mining, oil and gas, and utilities industries combined.

To address the shortage of skilled workers, Vancouver will host the second annual HTML 500 on Jan. 24, a free learn-to-code event that brings 50 of the city’s top tech companies together to feed their growing tech hub. Last year’s event was so popular, organizers are hosting it in four Canadian cities this year.

Last month, the BC Technology Industry Association opened a new “accelerator space” dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and tech companies grow. The operation is funded in part by a $10-million grant from the Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program.

Innovation doesn’t always have to come with a business angle. It can be about building better public spaces, developing medical breakthroughs in the treatment of HIV/AIDS and it can mean renewing the traditions of aboriginal potlatch songs or growing a better sunflower.

But to secure those research dollars, it helps to have a good story to tell.

Dr. Moran joined Ocean Networks Canada, one of the University of Victoria’s top research arms, because she saw the potential to avert disaster – both manmade ones and natural catastrophes such as the 2004 tsunami that killed 226,000 people in Asia.

One of the fiercest debates in B.C. over the past year – and it will continue in the coming year – is whether the province should embrace new and expanded oil pipelines that would dramatically increase oil tanker traffic along the coast.

A key question in that debate is, can a supertanker laden with heavy oil safely navigate the Douglas Channel out of Kitimat, if the Northern Gateway pipeline is built?

“No one has an answer to that question at the moment,” Dr. Moran said. The monitoring system she hopes will be installed over the next two years would be essential to gathering the data necessary to answer it.

The “Smart Oceans” project proposes to connect subsea pressure recorders and radar to monitor – and provide warnings employing existing technology, the automatic identification system used by commercial marine vessels – in the shipping lanes in and out of Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Kitimat, Campbell River, Port Alberni and other vulnerable marine routes.

Dr. Moran is agnostic about the question of more oil tanker traffic, but she has, thanks to her experience with the Gulf cleanup, a strong conviction that industry shouldn’t be left to manage risk.

She recalled how the owners of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, even as the well was leaking at a rate of more than 60,000 barrels a day, maintained that they were good at deep-sea oil drilling. “Certain industries have evolved with too much hubris,” she said. “Maybe they have to be to make the case for the investors, but it really hurts on the side of mitigating risk. It’s clear we need science and technology and innovation to reduce the risks in these kinds of systems.”

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