Monthly Archives: May 2016


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.




©David Howells 2013
Photo: David Howells

I didn’t realize my last blog on the provincial budget was going to carry me over for two weeks. Thought I’d give the blogspace a pass last week since readers were still catching up to it. I thought I might get some reaction but, man, that was intense. Thanks so much to everyone who wrote, either on this space or directly to me. Those emails of solidarity and thoughtful support mean a lot. Much much appreciated. The sheer volume of responses suggests how ravenous we are for more than a superficial conversation about the implications of the provincial budget. The blog in all its frustrated expression touched a nerve, to be sure.

The first week it was posted a few regular readers commented that no one seemed to notice it. Not sure why, I said. Well, sometimes the right switch needs flicking. At the top of the second week Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategies, who has 3,866 followers, tweeted it out and, lo, the wave started coming in. People who read Usher read the blog. Emails started coming in from colleagues and friends across the country and the US. As the typically delayed reaction of mainstream news goes these days, it took about 36 hours after Usher’s posting before CBC and NTV turned it into a story, headlining it with their own adjective: “scathing,” they hyperbolized. Among other things the experience has been yet another short course in how communications work in our time. And as I wrote a few weeks ago in this space, once your message is out there and people are paying attention you have to surrender any desire to control it, because you can’t.

I sure would not want to be in the shoes of the Premier or the Finance Minister. They must feel like hostages in their own country.  Reaction has been swift and largely brutal. It’s also gotten mean and personal, vulgar and even embarrassing. I have had my share of trolling insults, but nothing close to what they are getting–whether through the anonymity of social media or the brazen openness of picket signs. The common theme among the nasty and sadly misogynistic emails I received and in many I see directed towards government reinforces the importance of a good education. Go back to school, please. Most of those tweets were near illiterate, badly spelled, close to incoherent. Full of spite and rage, yes, and also full of disgust for Memorial. What’s up with that? The staff/faculty salary topic many haters focus on is a distraction from some other underlying anti-intellectual force out there. That force is alive and well in North America–hello US presidential race–and it is equally alive where we live. By the way, I consider a good companion piece to this blog a fresh column by author Ed Riche. Check out “Moving Forward in Hard Times” in this week’s edition of The Overcast.

It’s the anti-intellectualism that gets me down more than anything, and that’s what gets me going more than anything. I know those of us who work at Memorial are fiercely proud of how strong an institution it has become and promises to be. So many of us chose to work and live in Newfoundland. We weren’t pushed.

When I was first offered a job in the English department over thirty years ago a friend of mine at McGill asked me why I wanted to work here: “They’re just a bunch of yahoos out there,” he said. That comment burns me still. Memorial is as imperfect as any post secondary institution struggling to balance access and quality programming, trying to move forward with a decaying physical plant and almost constant threat of reduced funding. But it is a strong symbol and fact of this province’s commitment to higher education, to providing opportunity for its citizens. Research keeps showing that those holding college and university degrees have better quality of life, achieve higher salaries, live longer. Well, that trio of outcomes should encourage more, not less investment in the university; more, not less appreciation for the value of an education; more, not less pride in how many smart, sophisticated innovators we have graduated and populated the world with. A highly educated society costs taxpayers less for health care, for social problems, for crime. We eat better, smoke less. Who doesn’t get that?

Students often rightly feel caught in the middle of the dynamic between the university and government, however flawed it might be, somewhat helpless, not sure which side to blame or hold more accountable. It’s going to be challenging, but I really hope Memorial will not increase tuition this year. In 2016-2017 we will once again find savings and cover costs as best we can. It may mean more infrastructure delay, fewer hirings, fewer journals, but, if possible, no diminution of the quality of our programs. It will mean some diminution of morale, I know that. We need to fight that however we can, brassy blogs and all. What I can’t say is what we will be compelled to do in the future. The first cut might not be the deepest.