Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

18 Mar 2014

We must innovate to be sustainable

Posted by Michael Keating

When we think of innovations, we often think of the latest airliner, smartphone or flat screen TV. These bring many benefits, jobs and pleasure, but rarely make the world more sustainable.

One of Canada’s top business innovators has said the Canadian government needs to do more to help the country innovate its way to sustainability. Jim Balsillie is co-founder and former co-CEO of Research in Motion (now BlackBerry), and founder and chair of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, an international governance think tank.

In a speech to an International Institute for Sustainable Development meeting in Toronto earlier this year, Mr. Balsillie said the government needs to do more to foster the development of sustainable development technologies. He said Canada has strengths in public policy, but they are not harnessed for sustainability. He proposed Canada’s “Own the Podium” strategy that brought Olympic success as a model for organizing resources and energy for sustainable business development.

His call for federal leadership on sustainable development echoes those from business leaders in Canada over many years, going back to the National Task Force on Environment and Economy in 1987.

Mr. Balsillie said Canada is at an impasse on sustainable development. There is now a widespread feeling that economic growth should take precedence over the environment. “The compatibility between sustainability and economic growth are not yet self-evident to voters and investors.”

He called called for an end to the battle between environment and economy, saying that ideological debates are slowing the development of good sustainability policies.

We need “…to rethink economics so that we can craft better policies for sustainability and environment protection. We now know that inadequate economic science drove the 2008 financial crisis. We know that we got it backwards: economic theory was driving our choices instead of our choices driving economics.”

He said there is a lack of research on how to make sustainability and environmental protection good business. He said we need economic theory that integrates stability and equity, and puts a price on externalities (such as pollution).

His comments were echoed by IISD president Scott Vaughan, who also called for reform of financial markets.

Mr. Balsillie, chair of the federal government clean tech fund, Sustainable Development Technology Canada, said we need globally successful companies in green industries, and we need global policies on sustainability. He cited South Korea’s green growth strategy as an example. During the global financial crisis in 2008, that nation dedicated 80 per cent of its fiscal stimulus plan to green growth. When Ontario was expanding wind and solar power, it turned to Korea’s Samsung.

Mr. Balsillie said Canada has a big market for sustainability in the resource sector. Although it is a source of pollution, “Canada’s resource sector is a substantial opportunity for us all because it is also a market for sustainable innovation.”

He focused on the protection of innovative sustainability ideas, saying Canada will be at a disadvantage unless the country deals more effectively with global intellectual property rights. The country lags in innovations, and is weak on getting international patents on green innovations and sustainable technologies.

He cited international research as saying Canada has weak performance on securing international patents, and this is a major factor in our productivity gap with other countries, such as the United States.


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