Academic experts predict mixed outcomes for Canadian innovation due to COVID-19

Mark Lowey
July 22, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in new innovation opportunities but is also having negative consequences, including a “winner-takes-all” mentality that will leave many people and places behind economically, say academic experts on innovation.

COVID 19’s short- and long-term impacts on innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems will be decidedly mixed, panellists told a webinar presented by the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto on July 16.

“I think the pandemic is accelerating winner-take-all dynamics,” both for individual companies and on a global geographic scale, said David Wolfe, co-director of the Munk School’s Innovation Policy Lab and political science professor at the University of Toronto.

In Canada, for example, Shopify’s growth has exploded. In May, it became the most valuable publicly-traded company in Canada, surpassing the Royal Bank, Wolfe said. On July 15, the federal government announced a partnership with Shopify for a program called Go Digital Canada, to help small Canadian retailers set up online stores for 90-day free trials.

A crisis environment “does open up lots of opportunities for small, nimble, innovative companies who can move into the [market] space quite efficiently,” Wolfe said.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on innovation is uneven, said Tara Vinodrai, an associate professor at the Munk School. “There have unquestionably been lots of things that are new and highly innovative,” she said. But the winner-takes-all approach “suggests winners and losers and places being left behind," including women in science, whose research productivity has declined since the pandemic began because they’ve borne more responsibility for homeschooling and other parenting duties.

“This is going to be a really bad time for a lot of people,” said Ben Spigel, director of entrepreneurship and innovation MSc at the University of Edinburgh Business School in Scotland. Many students facing remote teaching in high school, colleges and universities won’t get the same quality of education as their peers did prior to COVID-19, he said. “Knock-on effects from education are going to be gigantic and we have not yet begun to reckon with them.”

Support for green recovery is likely

Environmental advocates who’ve been warning about the coming crisis of climate change are seizing the moment to push for an innovative “green” post-COVID recovery, said Catherine Beaudry, professor and Canada Research Chair in creation, development and commercialization of innovation at Polytechnique Montréal. “Maybe this [pandemic] is the trigger for the population to realize that we really need to get prepared and organize our economy, our resilience, to make sure that when this tsunami wave hits we’re ready and can survive and continue to function.”

The four panellists made other observations about the potential impact of COVID-19 on Canadian innovation:

  • Companies should be cautious about never returning to an office environment because innovation is a social process and often happens unexpectedly among networks of people interacting in person;
  • The move to digitize public health information and integrate databases will accelerate;
  • Large and dynamic innovation clusters, both in Canada and globally, will continue to pull ahead, widening the economic and social disparities between leading-edge places and places that are left behind;
  • Personal mobility will start to include more services that are integrated with workplaces, such as transporting individual employees among various office locations to avoid crowded public transport;
  • Drug discovery and development, aided by artificial intelligence, will accelerate but will require co-development of the regulatory system;
  • There will be a push to identify, improve and make more flexible local production and supply chains for critical items, rather than depending on global supply chains; and
  • Canada can take advantage of the current global geopolitical re-ordering by building linkages to India and other Southeast Asia countries that are benefitting from a shift of some software development firms, computer hardware production, and other tech companies from China, due to the ongoing trade tariffs dispute with the U.S.


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