Innovation captures the public’s interest because it can be such an elusive goal. Researchers in academe and in the public and private sectors are working to discover how, where and why innovation occurs.
To foster innovation in business, decision-makers often point to a region where it flourishes and then apply the region’s seemingly beneficial features elsewhere. Is this the right approach?
Not necessarily, says David Doloreux, who holds a Research Chair in Canadian Francophonie at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management.
From the start of his research career, Doloreux, who specializes in innovation, entrepreneurship and regional development, has been fascinated by how external environments influence innovation. To help unravel these mysteries, he says “we have to go beyond the conventional hypothesis that remote locations are at a disadvantage when it comes to innovating.” Indeed, through his research, Doloreux has found “that geographic location has little impact on a firm’s propensity to innovate. Why? Because each business approaches innovation differently.”
To support his premise, Doloreux maintains that the nature of innovation can change with geographic characteristics but, in the end, companies’ creative energy is basically the same. For example, he says, “sweeping product innovations generally occur near metropolitan areas while process innovations often come about in outlying regions, where companies focus their strategies on gradual improvements to increase efficiency.”
This shift in perspective challenges the approaches generally favoured by policy-makers. For example, in studying the Canadian wine industry, Doloreux realized that “despite the completely different contexts of Québec, Ontario and British Columbia, there were no major differences in terms of innovation among wine producers.” Witness the Okanagan Valley: though it enjoys a much more robust institutional framework and support infrastructure than that found in Québec, it does not innovate more remarkably.
“These results tell us that public policy should not revolve around the region itself,” says Doloreux, “but around each business sector’s specific needs.” In manufacturing, studies show that the most innovative companies are those that bring in outside experts, such as engineering, management or IT services. So, for Doloreux, “the policies that best support innovation are those that provide access to these outside experts, not those that are one-size-fits-all.”
Ultimately, Doloreux wants to help “build a better society by providing food for thought and maintaining awareness on current issues in entrepreneurship and innovation.” He seems well on his way to that lofty goal, as his findings on development and innovation are already attracting attention not only in academic circles, but also among policy-makers in Canada, Europe and Asia.
Entrepreneurs with a social conscience
Kathleen Kemp and Ajmal Sataar have a nose for business and their heart set on making a difference in their community. Since 2013, the fourth-year students have combined studies in management and finance at the Telfer School of Management with running a business called CigBins, a cigarette butt collection and recycling service.
“We install innovative disposal units that are easier for smokers to use and run education campaigns to explain the importance of using the bins,” explains Kemp, who is also president of Enactus uOttawa, a student-run organization that deals with social problems in the community through entrepreneurship.
The budding entrepreneurs could have stopped there. After all, composting the paper and tobacco and transforming the cellulose acetate in the filter into plastic to make new products is a considerable undertaking. But Kemp wanted to go further: “The goal is to solve an environmental problem and a social one at the same time. So far, CigBins has employed three people with mental illnesses to give them meaningful job opportunities.”
“We always wanted to give back to the community,” adds Sataar, “and because we have this ability to do well in business, we think the two — dealing with social issues and entrepreneurship — mesh very well together. I guess that’s what they call social enterprise.”
by Jean-Philippe Veilleux