Mining the Innovation Gap

In a crowd of 30,000 rock jocks, Canada is innovation king. Anouk Dey wonders why.
By: /
March 7, 2012

“A pack of reporters and photographers follow his every move, while three of his handlers scurry behind him, trying to stay out of the snapshots … ” 

It is not September, and Brad Pitt is not promoting his latest film at the Toronto International Film Festival. Rather, it is the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s annual mining conference, and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver is being treated, as Embassy Magazine put it, “like a rock star.”

It is not just celebrity that is different at this conference of over 30,000 rock jocks – it is also Canada’s reputation. Most Canadians have grown accustomed to a portrait of Canada as the place where innovation goes to die. Study upon study attempts to solve Canada’s “innovation gap.” Three years ago, at the request of the minister of industry, the Canadian Council of Academies released a report called “Innovation and Business Strategy: Why Canada Falls Short.” More recently, in response to another government request, an expert panel chaired by Tom Jenkins published, “Innovation Canada: A Call to Action.” Innovation is to Canada what the Stanley Cup is to the Leafs.

And yet, at this conference with representatives from over 120 countries, Canada is captain innovation. A group of miners from Argentina invoked a modern Louis Joliet as they described Canadian prospectors arriving in their country and exploring areas that Argentinians had never dared to explore. A group of Mexicans at the conference made Canada sound like Israel as they told the story of Canadian geologists using technology they had never seen before to extract copper from their soil. Aussies gathered around a table of Canadian scientists showcasing new digital surveying methods, oohing and awing as if they were watching Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open.

But Canada’s innovation reputation is not solely constrained to ways in which we interfere with the environment. Canada also seems to have some international stature on issues like corporate social responsibility. Yesterday, the CEO panel on this issue featured CEOs from several Canadian companies. With every “sustainability, eh?” I felt a twinge of Canadian pride.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that this conference was held in Canada, or that Canada accounts for almost half of global mining activities. An Argentinian conference on beef might have made Argentina look innovative, too.

As Globe and Mail columnist Konrad Yakabuski made clear in his 2009 deep dive into Canada’s innovation gap, “Canada’s resource sector has a poor record of innovation.” Canadian levels of private research and development remain embarrassingly low, particularly in natural resources. It may be less that Canada’s level of mining innovation is high, and more that the mining industry’s standard for innovation is low.  

Photo courtesy Reuters.