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The Societal Dimension of Innovation – A German and Canadian Perspective
Interview with
Coryell Boffy, Senior Director, Society and Culture at Axelys, and
Dr. Jan Breitinger, Senior Project Manager, Program Sustainable Social Market Economies at Bertelsmann Stiftung

Innovation is not only driven by science and the economy, but also by society. How can non-profit organizations accelerate innovative development? In a joint interview with the German Canadian Concourse, Coryell Boffy, Senior Director, Society and Culture at Axelys, Canada, and Dr. Jan Breitinger, Senior Project Manager, Program Sustainable Social Market Economies at Bertelsmann Stiftung, Germany, shed a light on the societal, ethical and sustainability-oriented connotations of innovation.
What Can Innovation Be and Do?
GCC: Dear Mr. Boffy, dear Dr. Breitinger, It seems that the whole world is talking about innovation now. What is your understanding of this term? What role does innovation play in your work?

JB: Indeed, the issue is pressing. Worldwide, a consensus is slowly gaining ground: The immense societal challenges facing humanity can no longer be overcome with conventional technologies or ways of thinking. New approaches and instruments are needed to tackle challenges such as climate change or global pandemics. As a non-profit organization, we see innovation in this sense as a central lever in the transformation towards sustainability. It is not about innovation for the sake of inventing, but innovation with a clear objective. An example: In Canada, the artificial intelligence (AI) strategy is also based on ethical standards, thus linking technology and social issues. Through our work at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, we want to contribute to innovation being understood not only as a driver of competitiveness, but also as a path to comprehensive sustainability. And this is not a nice-to-have, but as essential for our society as for our economy.

Dr. Jan Breitinger

"The immense societal challenges facing humanity can no longer be overcome with conventional technologies or ways of thinking."

CB: As you have suggested, with innovation being such a central topic right now, definitions vary greatly according to beliefs, geographies, industries, disciplines, etc. The OECD has a good definition in my view, even if it is slightly too focused on markets, leaving social/societal innovation in the shadows. My personal understanding of the term "innovation" is that it is the general science, or art, of getting ideas effectively adopted into the real world, in a manner perceived to be more valuable than previous ways.

There is very often an element of novelty to innovation, even if defining "novel" would be another question in itself. What is new in one scientific field or business industry might be considered common practice in another. What is a new societal idea today, might have been the traditional operating logic of other moments in history. However, the value from these not-so-novel ideas may still be considered highly beneficial in today's context or tomorrow's future.

Coryell Boffy

"My personal understanding of the term 'innovation' is that it is the general science, or art, of getting ideas effectively adopted into the real world, in a manner perceived to be more valuable than previous ways."

In a nutshell, I think the three main elements necessary for innovation to happen are:
  1. An idea (regardless of where it came from);
  2. A perception of increased value;
  3. The actual adoption of this idea by markets, stakeholders, communities or society.

My work at Axelys focuses on enabling innovation stemming from ideas developed in all publicly funded research institutions in the province of Québec, Canada.

How we enable this innovation varies depending on where our partners are. From the researchers' point of view, we help them unleash the potential societal value (economic, social, environmental, cultural, etc.) of their research. From the society's point of view (communities, governments, patients, businesses, etc.), we help identify, and hopefully solve, societal, community or business needs with the knowledge and expertise in public research institutions. From the governmental point of view, we provide tools and financing to help lower the hurdles between ideas and their adoption, in collaboration with all stakeholders. Innovation is at the core of our mission and we try to strike a balance between push (ideas-driven) and pull (needs-based) approaches.
The Role of Non-profits in Fostering Innovation
GCC: In what specific ways do you promote and foster innovation?

CB: Many universities worldwide have technology transfer offices (TTOs) that aim to convert research with potential commercial interest into economic value. The province of Québec, Canada wanted to launch a similar organization, but with broader value and geographical assumptions. The provincial government invests a good portion of its GDP in research funding and hence was looking for ways to increase its return on research investments. For governmental stakeholders, "return on investment" carries a broad meaning including social returns, environmental improvements, culture building and, of course, increased economic outputs. Hence, rather than resorting exclusively to research and development (R&D) credits or subsidizing university-focused TTOs, it set up Axelys, a pan-provincial non-profit with the aim to stimulate innovation at the project level, institutional level, and province-wide eco-systemic level to help capture the many different, not just economic, "values" of publicly funded research.

We are establishing a network of "innovation brokers" based in universities, colleges, and communities everywhere in the province that are co-funded by both the research institution and Axelys. These brokers engage with researchers in the different institutions to discover ideas that possess potential for innovation. Axelys then assesses the potential economic, social, and other types of values of these ideas and defines a tailored path forward to capture or deploy the societal value(s) identified. This could be achieved by refining a technology or a non-technological process, by helping engage with the right stakeholders (clients, beneficiaries, experts, non-profits, etc.), by helping scale validated initiatives, by supporting the establishment of project leadership when a project pilot does not naturally emerge, etc.

We aim to provide what it takes to help deliver the societal value of promising research.

JB: In our current projects, we focus on stimulating the dynamics of innovation and start-ups. We use studies to identify weaknesses in the local innovation system and work with experts to develop concrete proposals to reform it. For example, in our study series "Innovation for Transformation" we have looked for progressive innovation policies worldwide, including in Canada. Another important element is the cross-sectoral connecting of stakeholders who would otherwise not encounter each other. This includes politicians, policy makers, start-ups, large companies, non-profit organizations, and researchers. We want to anchor the idea of "mission orientation" more firmly in the German innovation system, i.e., align innovation policy with concrete societal needs ("missions"). To this end, we initiate workshops, for example, to discuss necessary adjustments in the institutional landscape.

Taking It to Another Level
GCC: How can different stakeholders (research communities, facilitators, businesses, society, different levels of government, etc.) all engage in and benefit from innovation at the product, service, process, and societal levels?

CB: When we think about the question carefully, it can basically be rephrased into "how can we be innovative in innovation". This is something we have been quite focused on at both the organizational and eco-systemic levels, in Canada and Germany. Almost ironically, when most actors usually focus on improving technological innovation, social sciences usually seem best placed to answer the question.

"Nurturing culture of innovation at all levels of society and across multiple stakeholders is one of the best ways to promote innovation."

Nurturing and growing a "culture of innovation" at all levels of society and across multiple stakeholders is one of the best ways we have identified thus far to promote innovation. A culture that enables and celebrates permeability between specializations, that shares the benefits of innovations, that rewards collective actions and specific interests. This is all easier said than done. Researchers are usually rewarded on narrow research outputs, businesses are almost exclusively celebrated on economic performance, and societal institutions are often too strictly evaluated on operational performance rather than their impact on beneficiaries or society. Societal impact is usually a collective benefit, but in order to happen, individual interests need to align.

We are therefore experimenting on initiatives that focus on bridging the interstices between innovation stakeholders, programs and processes, and funding. We aim to lower barriers to innovation "flows" between innovation "pillars" in society (research, communities and markets, financing institutions, etc.), incentivize collaborative behaviors, and communicate on successes. Our idea is to inspire replication and to influence the emergence of a deeply-engrained culture of innovation.

Also, where credit is due, I believe the "Innovation for Transformation" series of reports from the Bertelsmann Stiftung also provides some excellent recommendations on how to nourish innovative innovation ecosystems. We were particularly inspired by the need to link the usual innovation economic/competitiveness measures with societal challenges. Only then could we have achieved a long-lasting innovation culture.

JB: I very much agree. Actually, there is a common understanding that innovation originates from a diversity of perspectives. But in reality, many actors tend to operate separately from each other. Actors from civil society are often not involved. As a result, new products and services are created, but they do not necessarily meet a pressing need. Think, for example, of the many apps that only serve the purpose of convenience. The technologies and algorithms behind them could also be used for things that have a greater societal benefit. Why is there such a mismatch between what innovations we create and what we need to build a sustainable economic order?

Part of the answer is: because there is too little interaction between researchers, the private sector, the public sector, and civil society. If we bring the perspectives together, better things can emerge, and everyone can benefit from the value creation. Sustainable mobility in big cities, home-schooling solutions in times of pandemics, green energy – these topics touch so many areas of life that they can only be addressed in a joint effort. This requires more cross-sectoral exchange formats or experimental spaces where different stakeholders think about problems and solutions. In our view, there are outstanding models for this in Canada, such as Mila in Montréal.
Learning from One Another Across the Atlantic
GCC: What can you learn from Canada and Germany respectively in your field of work? How could the GCC potentially support your future endeavours to expand your activities in and collaborations with Germany or Canada?

"Germany has an excellent education and research ecosystem that is used to collaborating with industry."

CB: Germany has an excellent education and research ecosystem that is used to collaborating with industry. For example, the dual education system is deeply engrained and enables the co-contribution of theoretical ideas developed in the academic context with the pragmatic reality of the workplace. As the actors on both the theoretical and real "platforms" are the same individual, the focus on ideas and their simultaneous application becomes internalized in individuals, contributing to a culture of innovation in Germany. Another interesting point we noticed when looking at the tradition of innovation in Germany, was the historical importance put on the social and spiritual knowledge transfer aspects of apprenticeships. Canada could definitely learn from and build on Germany's long history in relaying social and behavioral norms towards the goal of nurturing a "culture of innovation", whether in crafts, research, businesses, NGOs, communities and government.

We hope that the GCC continues to act as a "pacemaker" where innovation professionals and enthusiasts can exchange ideas and values, in order to make better societies on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.

"In our research, we were repeatedly impressed by the interdisciplinarity and diversity in Canadian institutions."

JB: Despite all weaknesses, e.g., in the digital sector, it must be emphasised that there is a lot of successful innovation in Germany. The field of mechanical engineering, in particular, has a lot of know-how to offer. At the same time, there is a certain lack of bridging technology, innovation, and societal progress. Canada appears more progressive in this context, as evidenced, for example, by the "Montréal Declaration for a Responsible Development of AI". In our research, we were repeatedly impressed by the interdisciplinarity and diversity in Canadian institutions such as CIFAR and Mila. Germany could do well to learn from this. Furthermore, it will be exciting to see how the recently announced innovation agency will be set up in Canada.

There are similar plans in Germany, and an exchange on this matter could be very interesting. There is also plenty of room for bilateral cooperation. Both Canada and Germany (and Europe) want to develop technologically and must stand up to competitors, such as China and the US. Together, they could pursue a "third way" that combines technological and social innovations in a complementary way and that differs from economic and social models in China or the US. An organization like the GCC could take on the important role of "bridge builder" between the continents and different sectors.

GCC: Thank you for sharing with us your views on the relevance of innovation for scoieties in Canada and Germany.

Photo Credits:

Header picture: David Ausserhofer

Dr. Camilla Mohrdieck: Engelbert Lauinger

Prof. Dr. Ron Pelot: Axelys

Celebrating 50 years of German-Canadian STI Cooperation
This interview is part of a series produced by the German Canadian Concourse to celebrate the advances of 50 years German-Canadian collaboration on science, technology and innovation.
50 Years German-Canadian Science Technology Cooperation
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