What’s happening with Canada’s superclusters?

Canada has a long history of underperforming on measures of private-sector spending on research and development, and failing to capitalize on the commercial potential of scientific discoveries made in the country. And it has almost as long a history of coming up with government schemes intended to overcome those problems and turn Canada into an innovation nation.

One of the most recent of these schemes, announced in 2017, is the Innovation Superclusters Initiative. The idea was to replicate the success of well-known clusters around the world, such as California’s Silicon Valley, by encouraging closer collaboration between businesses, academic institutions and non-profits in specific areas, focused on industries in which Canada already had some competitive advantage. The initiative was to be given almost $1 billion, with the expectation that each cluster would at least match their funding with contributions from companies in their industry.

“It’s clear someone in the government was reading the literature about innovation, and the importance of density, and tried to imitate it,” says Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consultancy based in Toronto.

But it quickly became apparent that political concerns would feature heavily in selecting the clusters. When the government announced that there would be five clusters, Mr. Usher says it signalled that the intention was to ensure each region in the country would get its own cluster, rather than selecting locations solely on merit. “It became a beauty contest for who was the best in each region, and every prospective cluster made sure they had members region-wide,” he says. “They essentially created five regional agencies to disburse money in a cool way.”

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Last Modified: September 1, 2022