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Canadian Innovation: We Can't Play it Safe Any Longer

06/25/2013 12:25 EDT | Updated 08/25/2013 05:12 EDT

I attended a conference with the Ontario Trillium Foundation over the weekend and stumbled upon a workshop featuring a panel of tech leaders from the non-profit sector. The three members of the panel who came from technology related groups like Tech Soup, spoke about the need for NGOs to make service-delivery more innovative and efficient by taking risks. In fact, they mentioned that if Canada doesn't change its risk-averse nature it'll fall behind.

I agree, but are we that much more cautious than, for instance, the United States? According to Michael Adams the author of Fire & Ice, we are. Americans are allegedly "more innovative" because they take more risks. Risk can lead to good and bad outcomes however. Good in that it leads to radical innovation like Apple, Google or the Swiffer Sweeper; bad in that if left unchecked, it could lead to 2008-recession-type consequences.

The conference panellists were alluding to the need for greater funding for technology start-ups, small businesses and big ideas. The United States has this down pat, just look at the founding of Facebook and venture capitalists like Peter Thiel and Tesla's Elon Musk who are behind multi-billion dollar innovation hubs which in turn contribute billions to the economy.

In Canada, we like to play it safe and for the most part, it's paid off. Tight regulations and the centralization of banking powers helped us weather the economic storm of 2008. But we're a different Canada now. We're a nation yearning for that one opportunity to become a global leader in something, anything, and our time is now. With a healthy appetite for start-ups in Canada's major cities, we need to start taking calculated risks and not simply rely on Dragons' Den for our daily dose of entrepreneurial spirit. The outspoken, often brash Kevin O'Leary who stars as a judge on Dragon's Den and its U.S. equivalent Shark Tank noted that "Canada has maybe three main sectors in their economy while the U.S. has 10. The opportunities are much bigger down here [U.S.]."

I'm a firm believer that risk creates opportunity. Canada could definitely use more opportunities and sectors. Opportunity-generation is never devoid of failure of course, but it is always reliant upon risk. This means investing in ideas that may be cutting-edge, unprecedented and downright uncertain. As a G8 nation we can afford to take chances and as the U.K., U.S., France and others state their international claim, we can and should do more to toot our proverbial horn a little more. I know it may not seem like the "Canadian" thing to do, but who said it wasn't anyway? There's a difference between cockiness and confidence, but underestimating domestic potential is not being humble, it's being sidelined. As Muhammad Ali once notoriously stated, "it's not bragging if you can back it up."

The Canadian Task Force on Social Finance assembled a report urging the government to take more calculated risks when it comes to solving social issues and generating economic activity for the non-profit sector. We can do this nation-wide but it starts at the local-level. From risk-taking in community organizing to bold ideas for the boardroom we can become an international leader in innovation and collaboration in addition to taking bold stances on foreign policy.

We need to supersede mediocrity and push forward towards the forefront of something other than hockey and TimBits. We can be a leader in tech, the social impact sector, international relations and more, but it takes gusto and perseverance on leadership levels to go where no organization or country has gone before. We need to dare to be different. We need to take policy advice from people like Miss Frizzle who share a healthy disregard for the impossible and who emphatically urged her students to "take chances, make mistakes and get messy," sure she was a character from a popular '90s children's cartoon but the lady had a point.

Canada's potential is remarkable, we need to believe in that potential and invest in its development before looking elsewhere for inspiration. It's all right here.

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