How can we increase productivity, build resilience and enhance quality of life in the rapidly changing 21st century? An international consensus is now emerging around a people-centered model of innovation for successful change in businesses, government institutions and communities.
In contrast to the linear lab-to-market approach of the 20th century, the new model puts people – ideas and behaviour – at the center of an expanded and dynamic innovation picture that better portrays the complex interplay of creativity, technology and society.
In Canada, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council put aside criteria such as patents in favour of metrics like “talent indicators” when they assessed innovation in their first report in 2008, “State of the Nation.” The Canadian Council of Academies’ report on business performance in 2009 concluded that innovation must be seen “as an economic process rather than as a primarily science and engineering activity.” Most recently, the consultation paper of the Review of Federal Support for R&D identified four enabling inputs to innovation: “ideas and knowledge; talented, educated, and entrepreneurial people; networks, collaborations and linkages; capital and financing.”
The central insight in such reports reflects new research findings on the complex ways in which the success of any new product or service depends upon the context within which it is embedded. People matter.
This insight explains the increased currency of expressions like the customer-driven marketplace, user-engaged services, employee-empowered workplaces, student-centered schools, patient-oriented health, and citizen-engaged politics.
The result is that innovative businesses are strategically focused on understanding customers, especially through data mining, to analyze the deep complexity of values, preferences and habits. Similarly, innovative campuses are using research on learning retention rates to move from a reliance on transmission-of-knowledge lectures to include engaged, active learning opportunities such as in-service community-based programs.
Innovative hospitals are rejecting a provider-perspective in order to match health interventions to each patient’s intertwined needs and desires – psychological, social and cultural as well as bio-medical. Innovative public sector leaders are seeking citizen-engagement as they jettison top-down assumptions about successful policies and programs.
The enhanced understanding of innovation as a complex human process is generating new forms of collaboration both within and across sectors. The desired culture of innovation now involves multiple types of partnerships, the adoption of new modes of campus-community engagement, and the development of new networks and means of networking both face-to-face and virtual.
These trends are accelerating as the rise of the service sector – now accounting for well over two-thirds of GDP in developed countries – further emphasizes the importance of understanding thinking and behaviour in order to innovate successfully.
At the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Canada’s granting agency that supports post-secondary research and research training in these fields, we have developed an outward-looking, nimble and user-friendly system for administering our programs to improve our ability to enable research excellence and innovation.
Our renewed program “architecture” embraces established and emerging ways to develop the talent needed across the public, private and non-profit sectors as Canada confronts an increasingly globalized, digital economy and society. It seeks to support research that generates insights about Canadians and the broader human society in the past and present – who we are, what we think, and how we act and might act in the future. And our approach fosters myriad forms of connection between campuses and the broader society, for their mutual benefit.
In this innovation, SSHRC has also developed an inclusive definition of, and improved reporting about, the substantive benefits, influence and impact of improved understanding and knowledge about people for all sectors of society.
A great deal of work remains to be done to implement the new people-centered model of innovation in agencies like SSHRC as well as in businesses, governments and other organizations. The new model calls upon us to re-kindle the relationship between knowledge and society; to re-imagine and renew the historic covenant between campuses and the public; and to exploit all the ways of knowing about the past and present to tackle the world’s toughest challenges. Such innovation holds the promise of a productive and prosperous, resilient and safe, ethical and just society in the 21st century.
Chad Gaffield is president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He is a former president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.