Insights December 2010

The Spinoff (Part 4): No, Virginia, We Don’t Need More Innovation Conferences

Neil Seeman

Suppose we stop spending time talking – and talking – about innovation. It is a waste of scarce funds. Entrepreneurs find these conferences absurd. Innovation conferencing is fashionable among academics, management consultants, lawyers and media types, not among people inventing applications to change the world.
I believe there is an inverse correlation between countries that hold a lot of conferences about innovation and countries where innovation is on fire.
To wit:
1. Canada: Google “Canada” + “conference” + innovation. I found 13,100,000 results. We have “ground-breaking summits”; we have opportunities to hear from “innovation leaders”; and the chance to pay homage to “Canadian authorities in the private, public and academic sectors”. Hmmm.
Canadian score on Innovation: D, according to the Conference Board of Canada.
2. United States: “Google "United States” + “conference” + innovation. I found 17,500,000 results. Interesting: The United States is almost 10 times as populous as Canada. It seems to hold fewer innovation conferences per capita. It ranks a B on innovation according to the Conference Board. The United States does far better than Canada on knowledge-intensive service industry activity – i.e., a highly skilled labor force necessary to “use and exploit technological innovations.”
3. Japan: Google “Japan” + “conference” + innovation. I found 10,700,000 results (for a country with 127 million people). That country ranks a B on innovation. It seems less enthralled with innovation conferencing than Canada. Japan is a patent powerhouse, patents being an indicator which should enjoy a positive linear correlation with strong academic research. In Canada (with strong research), no such correlation exists. Maybe Canadians just prefer to talk about innovation than to file patents.
To be sure, mine is crude research. Switzerland has a high number of innovation conferences per capita, and fares well on many measures of innovation. Yet it’s more pleasant to schmooze in Geneva than in Toronto. Switzerland is the world’s conference destination of choice for international congresses and renowned events (example: Davos), and I suspect that a disproportionate number of innovation conference attendees there are Canadians.
We Canadians talk too much when we should be tinkering and inventing. We don’t need new “national strategies” on innovation or pricey conferences keynoted by corporate lawyers or tenured professors telling us how poorly we measure up on the innovation scale. We certainly don’t need public dollars supporting such conferences. I don’t know any entrepreneurs who have the time or money to attend them! We don’t need more Senate Committees caterwauling about our innovation gap.
Here’s a challenge to everyone holding an innovation conference: take 25% of the proceeds from your conference and write a fat check to an entrepreneur. And ask yourself: can you name five CEOs under 30? If you’re organizing a conference about innovation, you should know enough about the market for innovation to know which daredevil entrepreneurs deserve money that might otherwise go wasted.

About the Author(s)

Longwoods essayist Neil Seeman, Director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College, is author of XXL: Obesity and the Limits of Shame (forthcoming). He is now writing a book called “The Spinoff”, which draws on some of the content in this series.


Tai Huynh wrote:

Posted 2010/12/15 at 11:36 PM EST

Yes, no more innovation conferences please. I'm willing to bet that the contents of presentations at these events have not changed much over the last 2 decades:
-Canada has great ideas and basic research, but can't commercialize
-Our companies spend much less on R&D than those in other countries
-Our financial system is risk-averse, so risk capital is hard to come by
-Our scientists lack the entrepreneurial skills and spirit

Innovation has become its own industry. Maybe it's time we have conferences on innovation in the innovation industry.


Jennifer Jilks wrote:

Posted 2010/12/24 at 09:06 AM EST

We do more research on this continent, and ignore much of it, as well. I was in and out of emergency in an hour this past week. The system isn't broken...


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