Innovation is one of those words that gets tossed around a lot these days. Years ago, I was part of a team that participated in then Liberal Minister Allan Rock’s introduction of Canada’s innovation strategy. That was the late ‘nineties under the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien. I really don’t remember much about those discussions. I do recall a lot of breakout groups, some early language around technology and a lot of tall men chairing panels. Along with others, I heard repeatedly that Canada had been ranked very poorly among developed countries for innovation. Our country might have been doing all right as one of the safest, cleanest, happiest to inhabit, but we were informed we were a nation of largely sluggish or passive innovators. According to all significant international indicators we lacked an entrepreneurial culture. That notion persists today.
I always understood innovation for its basic meaning, as applying to a new idea or approach. But the Liberal Government of the day was using the word somewhat differently, as a new idea or product that would find its way to the marketplace. That’s the extended definition we more commonly understand innovation to mean today. Innovation is a softer way of saying commercialization, a more crass if more honest expression of what is intended through common usage. To distinguish innovation as commercialization from other non-commercial applications, we have introduced the phrase social innovation to the conversation. Innovation doesn’t mean what it used to, that’s for sure, and so it almost always needs qualification.
Universities are ostensibly engines of innovation. Ideas germinate here. Over the last few decades universities have also become vulnerable to charges of (excessive) commercialization. This critique extends into the voluminous debate about the corporatization of universities into which I am not wading here. That debate has been raging for over a century now and I am not going to add anything new to it in a blog.
I am deliberately shifting, however, to an inspiring example of what innovation and entrepreneurship might mean, how these terms might be applied to a world in exciting transition. Specifically, I am describing my experience at Shopify™ last week, as emblematic of the new language of innovation—and its companion noun, entrepreneurism. Wikipedia sums it up: “Shopify is a Canadian e-commerce company headquartered in Ottawa, Ontario, that develops computer software for online stores and retail point-of-sale systems.” I was in Ottawa for some meetings, part of which included a tour of the magnificent 6-floor operations of this highly successful company. I sort of almost partly knew what Shopify was, and, coincidentally, Zita Cobb of Fogo Island had mentioned it in passing only the day before when she opened the Digitizing Memorial conference. She is a client, not surprisingly. But I didn’t really appreciate the extent to which this fledgling start-up had galloped from a good idea to a 10-billion dollar plus publicly traded operation, for good reason.
As anyone knows who follows the tech trades, Shopify was started in 2004 by two young guys who were looking to market their snowboarding venture on line. One thing really did lead to another and today the company occupies space in various cities. The Ottawa office, smack in the centre of town, is the flagship operation—where the founders work—a spectacular fusion of high-end design and 21st century creativity. I was impressed—blown away is more like it. I have long been nattering on in these blog pages about space and the sorry ways universities have constructed their buildings and gathering places to discourage human interaction and creative thinking. Well, the people who work at Shopify are living my dream. They are, for the most part, young, tech savvy, but more importantly, used to working in groups, solving problems at open workstations, and conspicuously comfortable in the nontraditional structure of their environment.
Our group was led by a Shopify “talent” scout—a staff recruiter, in other words. He told us how he and his team find people with the right “fit.” They eschew the traditionally scripted HR interview format (hallelujah) and, instead, engage in a dialogue with candidates about their personal stories. If the applicants appear authentic (unpretentious or not trying too hard), are passionate about their life’s journey, willing to take risks—and fail, and are comfortable working in groups, then they are well on the road to a job at Shopify. Our group chuckled at how utterly impossible it would be for universities to hire people based on these criteria. Can you imagine? Shopify is a brave new world of students and university graduates who approach their work-a-day world completely differently from the way most of us do. About time.
Wisely, universities in Ottawa have partnered with Shopify on internships and, most recently, a graduate program that values experiential learning in place of in-class credits. The place was crawling with young people who radiated confidence and intensity. I bet they rode bicycles to work and recycled their lunches, too. I know I am idealizing the experience, but that’s what it felt like.
By the way, the picture above shows one of the open spaces at Shopify. One can always take an elevator or walk the stairs to go from floor to floor but for the adventurous there’s also a slide–that metallic tube—that will get you there with a swoosh in your belly. Shopify gets the necessary balance of work and play. I am sure it’s not perfect, because nothing is, but I looked innovation straight in the face and I liked it.