Birth of A Supercluster: from the inside looking out

Farming Family

(Disclosure: the author is a member of the Smart AgriFood Supercluster transition board and chaired its preliminary steering committee. He is executive vice-president of Weather Innovations.) 

You may have heard of the supercluster effect.

It’s one way of describing some of the intriguing outcomes that result from dangling dollars in front of sectors hungry for innovation investment.

Now, nine groups are playing the waiting game as they await word from the federal government as to which will successfully tap the $950-million supercluster innovation coffer. That’s the fund Ottawa established earlier this year to help reshape the Canadian economy and set it up for future success by stimulating collaborative innovation.

The groups represent key sectors of the Canadian economy and were shortlisted from among more than 100 that submitted initial indications of interest.

As the supercluster process is by its nature, competitive, it’s been interesting to watch how the various groups have undertaken their various “engagement” efforts through which they’re attempting to convince the powers-that-be (read: politicians and bureaucrats, for the most part, in addition to their respective sectors) that their proposals should rise to the top. The outreach efforts offer insights into some of the inner workings of each group.

All have compelling (and exciting) stories to tell. Whichever groups of the nine are successful, the projects they propose will almost certainly have a positive and profound impact on the overall economy – and will help the public understand the importance of long-term innovation investment.

The supercluster effect has also generated significant collaborative excitement and enthusiasm between companies, governments, post-secondary institutions and organizations that in the normal course of events would have no compelling reason to interact with each other consistently (even though perhaps they should be).

That's another result of the effect.

The word supercluster, paired with the word innovation, can potentially connote something that vaguely smells of bureaucracy and binary code.

Quite the opposite; the process in fact, has surfaced a strong sense of the entrepreneurial spirit (industry must match dollar for dollar federal funding) and a whole range of ideas (digital and otherwise) that could have remained just that: stillborn concepts.

Now, they are real-life initiatives; ready for deployment in Canada’s fields, classrooms, offices and labs.

Hence the supercluster notion.

One of the nine is the Smart AgriFood Supercluster (SASC). It’s a massive consortium of diverse players that touch all parts of the Canadian agrifood value chain – from, in common parlance, “farm-to-fork”. In other words, from the way we grow and raise food to the way we – and others – consume it. It’s a “value chain” that touches everything from job creation and environmental sustainability to technology innovation and economic growth. That includes solidifying Canada's place as a global agrifood leader.

SASC is the supercluster effect writ large – in that superclusters are intended to incent collaboration and knock down barriers.

If there ever was a sector for which the terminology working in silos was created (appropriateness intended), it’s agrifood. Primary producers don't, for example, have the clearest line-of-sight to consumers. Important data gets trapped within silos. Research isn't consistently shared. And Canada's original innovation ecosystem engine – the farm – needs some help to keep it revving.

SASC is "systems-built" to ensure that silos all connect – and that the pan-Canadian platform can expand to accommodate growth and new participants. That model attracted nearly 100 companies, for example, and organizations, with more seeking to join daily.

SASC has convened some intriguing idea-generation "collisions" between its diverse members that also illuminate and illustrate the supercluster effect.

In SASC, that has been precisely the effect. Agribusinesses and farmers have been brainstorming with technology companies; food processors have been “blue skying” with environmental firms. Colleges and universities are connecting and collaborating via the supercluster platform to hypercharge research. There are fascinating discussions about digital farming and agrifood blockchain applications.

The list goes on.

Also by way of the effect: Two key acronyms have also come together in a way that links two of Canada's key resource sectors in a powerful partnership: SASC and CRIN.

CRIN is the Clean Resource Innovation Network, an intriguing web of oil and gas companies and organizations melded together to focus on clean technology development. A CRIN rep, Joy Romero of CNRL, an upstream oil and gas company, sits on the SASC board. In the SASC bio-economy innovation community, that means oil and gas companies and researchers will be working with farmers, ranchers and agribusiness companies to tackle carbon emissions and water quality challenges.

From an insider’s perspective, the supercluster effect has been both energizing and illuminating. It has revealed the untapped power and potential of deliberative (and synergistic) collaboration between diverse groups that needed an external catalyst to convene; it has also teased out how important creative investment in innovation will be to the Canadian economy in the near-term and long-term.

Now, it’s up to Ottawa to hitch up groups like the Smart AgriFood proponents and let them get to work.