When David Johnston assumed the office of governor general of Canada he signaled right away that his time at Rideau Hall would be fully packed.
One of the main priorities he outlined in 2010 was a purposeful desire to help build an innovation culture in the country. In the wake of a federal budget that focussed on injecting energy into innovation, Johnston’s focus seems perfectly timed.
The first step in following through on that commitment was the Governor General’s Innovation Awards. The second step is a new book called Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier, and Happier (Signal) co-authored with Tom Jenkins, the former CEO of OpenText, Canada’s largest software company. He is at present the chancellor of the University of Waterloo and the chair of the National Research Council.
Jenkins is a longtime friend and colleague of Johnston’s, from the time the Governor General headed the University of Waterloo starting in 1999.
The two will appear at a free event sponsored by the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Tuesday March 28 at Library and Archives, 395 Wellington St., at 7 p.m. They will travel to Toronto for a second event on Wednesday evening. Royalties from book sales go to the Rideau Hall Foundation.
Johnston is a fairly prolific writer with 25 titles to his name. His new book surveys the history of Canadian innovations from Bovril to BlackBerrys, light bulbs to liquid helium, peanut butter to Pablum. But he also knows his personal bibliography pales when compared to one of his predecessors.
“I look in my office at a wall in which the names of previous governors general are inscribed and directly in my eyesight is John Buchan (Lord Tweedsmuir the 15th to hold the office). I remind myself that Buchan wrote 120 books in his lifetime and it was never his full-time job.”
Perhaps Buchan’s example urges Johnston along. He certainly keeps busy.
Johnston told ARTSFILE in an interview that he had intimate personal contact with a piece of Canadian innovation history on the weekend when he went snowmobiling with his grandchildren. As you can detect his connection to innovation is a deep one.
“I suppose innovation has been part of my DNA going back to the time when I was a small child being very curious.
“Another milestone would be the installation in this post. The theme of my installation address was ‘A Smart and Caring Nation, A Call to Service.”
Also important he said is a personal sense he has that the world is changing and “a sense, as Darwin once said, that it’s not the most powerful of the species that will thrive and survive, it’s the most resilient.”
Just how you build that resilience is part of the innovation initiative that the new book wants to further.
Johnston and Jenkins first met in 1999 when Johnston was named President of Waterloo University.
“He has been such a good friend over the decades and has been such an innovator in his own right. He was the first non-board person I met when coming to Waterloo.
“Our discussion began then.”
Two years ago Jenkins approached Johnston with the idea of the Governor General’s Innovation Awards. That started the ball rolling towards the book and a much bigger initiative that begins with children and aims for a culture of creativity.
“Everyone of us has the capacity to do things better. Children have an innate sense (of this). The trick is to tap it and help direct it without confining it too much.”
This life-long educator has what he calls five Cs that are necessary ingredients in this endeavour. They are creativity, curiosity, collaboration, communication and celebration.
“The most important is curiosity which is innate in any child from the time they are born and begin to speak the word why. We have to take those whys and encourage them to answer the question themselves.”
Waterloo is an example of an institution which made its own way, he said.
“When started in 1957 it was an orphan from Waterloo-Lutheran College. It didn’t make sense to emulate (established universities such as) Queen’s or Toronto so it went differently.”
The school developed a focus on engineering and co-operative education. It also created a policy that left intellectual property with the professors. The university undertook to help bring these ideas to market. One result of that was Blackberry.
Canada’s harsh climate and great size have helped innovation with a spirit of co-operation and collaboration, he says. As a result, he added, we punch above our weight interns of innovation. The evidence is in the book.
“We started out with 150 stories and ended up with 297. For a nation of 35 million, that’s pretty good when you look around. There are also examples of Canadian inventions being taken up in other countries such as the lightbulb” which was patented in the U.S. in 1874 by Canadians Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans. They built an electric lamp with different-sized carbon rods held between electrodes in a glass cylinder filled with nitrogen. They couldn’t get it to market and ended up selling their patent to Thomas Edison.
That story illustrates a downside, he says.
“Our innovative spirit is there and we are seeing the creativity but we don’t celebrate it enough and we are a little less active and successful in commercializing it and exploiting it.
“We are a little on the complacent side. Life has been pretty good here. Our big challenge now is to overcome that complacency.
The next step in this evolving platform is the release of a children’s book in French and English this fall. It will feature 50 stories drawn from the adult book. There is also a website (innovationculture.ca) where one can register stories of creation. The site was developed with Library and Archives Canada. The Museum of Science and Technology will host a database of innovation stories and the effort is working with Nipissing University where hundreds of teaching modules are being developed for all grades from K to 12. Add to that some 30-second video clips that tell these stories. Other agencies involved are the National Research Council, NSERC, the National Film Board and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.
“The purpose of this office (of the governor general) is to connect with and to inspire Canadian. This goes right back to Lord Dufferin in 1871 who created academic medals for high school students. Now the office hands out 70 different awards.”
As he prepares to go to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, Johnston has been reflecting on its significance.
He believes that famous battle was an example of the innovative spirit of Canadians.
“It was Canada finding its real character, being resilient on the battlefield.” And being innovative in the use of aerial spotting to help direct the artillery as they launched a creeping barrage. Both were new ideas on the Western Front in 1917, he says.