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Focus on human dimension of innovation

By Ursula Gobel      

Given that diversity and creativity have been recognized as key attributes to fostering innovation, Canada is well-positioned to embrace and benefit from those differences.

Innovation is often defined in the context of those discoveries and systems necessary to sustain Canada’s competitive leadership in a global economy. We must realize however, that innovation is only as valuable as its capacity to reflect, to resonate with and to serve the human experience. Addressing the social, cultural, and ethical impacts of new technology at every stage—from research and development through to application and commercialization—will invariably shape both the technology itself and its ultimate capacity for societal benefit.
Consider the impact of new surveillance technologies, including those now embedded within insects, or the use of avatars in immersive, three-dimensional virtual environments to enhance learning and teaching.
These research projects were among several recently featured at the University of Alberta, where humanities and social sciences scholars across many fields of study—from communications and sociology to cultural and native studies—provided valuable insights on issues critical to sustaining Canadian innovation, including emerging technologies, education, employment, natural resources and energy.
These issues, like so many others, have profound human dimensions. In seeking to foster cross-sector innovation, how effectively Canada integrates these efforts with an understanding of the human experience will play a significant role in its long-term success, both at home and internationally.
In this regard, research supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) is developing the talent, generating the insights and building the connections necessary for Canada’s sustained growth and prosperity in an uncertain and rapidly evolving global context.
SSHRC’s recent “Imagining Canada’s Future” forum convened some of the country’s most talented scholars, together with senior leaders in the academic, government, business and not-for-profit sectors.
Held in Ottawa, the forum aimed to establish a collective understanding of the complex issues facing Canadians in the coming decades, while exploring the roles that respective sectors may play in realizing a successful future. Participants addressed two of six future challenges identified through a comprehensive foresight exercise led by SSHRC: How will the experiences and aspirations of aboriginal peoples help to ensure a shared and successful future? How will the impact of emerging technologies benefit Canadians?
Benoît Dupont, Canada Research Chair in Security, Identity and Technology at the Université de Montréal, underscored the significant security and safety challenges now at hand due to the rapid pace of emerging and disruptive technologies. “The boundaries between machines and people are eroding,” he noted. “Machines are becoming more social, making cross-disciplinary work critical to the management of such technologies.”  
Martha Crago, vice-president of research at Dalhousie University, emphasized the importance of cross-campus and multi-sector collaboration in shepherding technological development, observing that “there are no disciplines anymore, only problems. Workable solutions must therefore necessarily involve experts who bring diverse talents and perspectives to the table.”
McGill University doctoral candidate François Leblanc, highlighted the revolutionary capacity of 3D printing in architecture, including its social dimension. Three-dimensional printing has the advantage of fabricating complex shapes, allocating material only where required. It can also enhance entrepreneurship. “You can design products, upload them to web-based factories, and sell them in the virtual marketplace,” said Leblanc, adding that such developments, coupled with the benefits of open source software, “…allow everyone to become a designer and producer,” thus profoundly democratizing the technology development process.
But innovation and its social dimensions reach far beyond the technology domain. SSHRC-funded research by and with aboriginal peoples, for example, offers an important counterpoint. This complementarity was also made clear at the Imagining Canada’s Future forum, with the participation of a number of leading Aboriginal scholars and sector leaders.
JP Gladu, CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, outlined several innovative approaches to economic and social development through best practices for strengthening relations with Aboriginal communities. With some 36,000 Aboriginal businesses now operating in Canada, new programs encourage companies to participate in the growing Aboriginal business economy by promoting the importance of trust, sustainable growth and traditional cultures, as central elements in the new business model.
Aaron Mills, a Vanier Scholar and Trudeau Fellow pursuing PhD research in law at the University of Victoria, noted that, in opposition to the assimilation aims of colonialism, “aboriginal peoples’ goal is not to fit in, but to have our differences stand.”
From the field of digital humanities, media artist and Ryerson University professor Lila Pine described her use of new technologies to preserve indigenous languages, and noted the impact made by linguistic differences in shaping not just our conception of the world but our relation to each other.
Given that diversity and creativity have been recognized as key attributes to fostering innovation, Canada is well-positioned to embrace and benefit from those differences. By better integrating an understanding of the human experience moving forward, we can facilitate a more effective and sustainable model of Canadian innovation for the benefit of future generations.  
Ursula Gobel is associate vice-president of future challenges at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
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