Hill Times Op-Ed: Innovation is a people business

In the 21st century, prosperous markets are consumer-driven, high-performing schools are student-centered, effective health care is patientcentered, and successful technology is user-centered. This people-centered focus has made social sciences and humanities skills essential to the innovation agendas of businesses, community organizations and governments alike.

Social sciences and humanities graduates are uniquely equipped to help organizations  understand the complex factors that shape human needs and behaviour, and therefore to drive the development of new products, services and ways of doing business. Their deep, specialized expertise combined with a base of broad, versatile skills makes them especially valuable to organizations in the fast-changing global marketplace. 

Many of the skills that these graduates obtain through their studies of people in the past and present—critical thinking, analysis, teamwork—align with those the Conference Board of Canada’s Innovation Skills Profile 2.0 considers indispensable to innovation, such as creativity, problemsolving, continuous improvement, risk-taking and relationship-building. Social science and humanities grads are adept at synthesizing and analyzing complex information. They tend to be strong communicators, which is a vital asset in today’s collaborative workplace. Their understanding of the world in context—of cultures, languages and social dynamics—helps open doors to new opportunities for all types of organizations.

That was certainly the experience of Canada’s Forbes Wild Foods, which drew on one post-graduate student’s anthropology expertise to grow and strengthen its unique supply chain. Through an internship established by Mitacs—a national, private not-for-profit organization that develops next-generation innovators through research and training programs—Forbes Wild Foods collaborated with University of Toronto Ph.D candidate Dylan Gordon to connect with harvesters in Canada’s remote northern forests. The experience enabled Gordon to enhance the contribution of his research. He helped the company identify innovative ways to overcome challenges associated with sourcing wild products and, in the process, gave northern food harvesters access to previously untapped urban markets in the south.

The business applications of such skills are vast. Organizations are hiring sociologists to study consumers’ purchasing habits and historians to make sense of complex economic, demographic and political trends. An increased emphasis on big data analysis also has companies drawing oninsights from the social sciences and humanities to better understand the impact of digital technologies, content and behaviour on consumer demand. 

Social science and humanities grads are also applying their skills to developing new business ventures: 70 per cent of student- and grad-founded start-ups between 2007 and 2012 emerged from social sciences and humanities disciplines, according to a study of Canadian university and college technology transfer offices. As the case of Forbes Wild Foods shows, Canadian businesses and other organizations benefit greatly when they are able to capitalize on social science and humanities skillsets in their pursuit of innovation. To do so successfully, what they need first and foremost is access to graduates’ talent. That requires forging closer, more collaborative ties between industry and academia and creating new types of opportunities for students to apply their skills to industry challenges.

If Canadian firms are to flourish in the people-centered marketplace, they need employees with people-centered skills who can make sense of trends, interpret customer needs, and define the requirements for products, services and solutions that contribute to higher productivity and better quality of life.

Businesses already recognize this. Students are ready to put their skills to work. Our challenge—and opportunity—as a country is to fully realize the potential of bringing the two together.

Chad Gaffield is president of the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada, and Arvind Gupta is CEO and scientific director, Mitacs.

From the February 2014 Hill Times Innovation Policy Briefing