Home » Archive » Why the back-side of innovation matters

, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

In my line of work, everyone’s beguiled by innovation. Any new line on this most ambiguous of intentions gets all sorts of attention. I sometimes wonder: Are we paying attention to the right part of the system?

A few weeks ago Juan Enriquez was in town. We talked about the challenge of innovation, opportunities to invest in Alberta and related ideas. One of the riddles he came to answer was: How to find the “finishers” of innovation.

Turns out, finding the “finishers” is no small task.

We want to find the people that get things done in Alberta, Canada. If one wants to invest, who are the few, right people to call? If one wanted a road, what team would push it through? If one needed legislation, who could write and get it signed? These are critical components of innovation that rarely get attention. Each is an example of delivering innovation – versus starting it.

A few months before seeing Juan, I met with the colleges and technical institutes of Alberta. They wanted to hear our observations on innovation. Since our work keeps us on the fringe of Alberta’s rapidly evolving innovation policies, they also hoped I’d share some insights on the systemic changes being undertaken in the province.

Rather than trot out a rehearsal of all that we’ve done in the past year, I decided to talk about what isn’t being done. Instead of reciting everything someone has already addressed, I focused on what hasn’t been dealt with. I called it the “back-side of innovation”.

The basic question I posed is bewilderingly crude: What is the poop of the innovation system?

As awful as it smells, the back-end is often the most opportune place to be. The most basic reason it remains an opportunity is that it isn’t sexy, new or flashy – it stinks. And the few willing to endure the smell ought to have a good time exploiting their freedom.

My view of things innovation is that the front has had enough. Research, start-ups and commercialization get all the cheerleaders. Every program attempts to serve the entrepreneur. If it’s an entrepreneurial scientist – well, even better. But, what about the back-side?

The back-side includes gazelles that aggregate loose technologies, new products by mature companies and, shameful as it seems, applied science. It’s a space virtually abandoned by policy-makers (the linked source says: “Most respondents indicated that they are unaware of any public policy and incentives offered in Canada to facilitate and stimulate growth of global gazelle”).

Leaving the back-side open has meant an abundance of science left idling on the shelf, a plethora of start-ups with nowhere to go, and a slew of multinationals desperately searching for technologies with no service providers large enough to handle the work (for an opposing view, see “How Startups will save Venture Capital in Canada“).

Baltasar Gracian was a Jesuit priest, ordained in 1627. In 1651 he published the Criticon, an allegorical novel that eventually got him exiled. But just before his drift into the darkness of time he slipped out a Manual of the Art of Discretion (commonly called “The Art of Worldly Wisdom“, 1647).

The Manual of the Art of Discretion is three hundred maxims with commentary. Each is a word puzzle composed of diverse rhetorical devices. And more than a few of them are worth citing here.

#283 – Have the gift of discovery.
#5 – Know how to choose well.
#66 – See to it that things end well.

I find the last, number 66, the most compelling. Know how to discover and know how to choose but pay very close attention to the end.

In his commentary, Gracian writes: “Some regard more the rigour of the game than the winning of it, but to the world the discredit of the final failure does away with any recognition of previous diligence.”

So much of all that is said about innovation is of its start. What of its end?

Who are the finishers of innovation?

Where is the compass for this last, most important, leg of new things?

Which are the tools and equipment best tailored for the work?

My work with companies and governments on innovation, particularly innovation strategies, is most often focused on its start. Together we build tools to identify new areas of growth, paths to commercialize research from universities, mechanisms to invest in startups just ready to enter the market. All good and necessary things. But this is only the start; this is the front of innovation.

What of its backend?


[…] are produced for the sole reason that they are effective and create value. They satisfy the back-side of innovation as much as the front. They are big in small […]