Sparking a new generation of Indigenous innovation will ultimately benefit us all

Wed., April 28, 2021  The Toronto Star

When Europeans arrived at our shores, they quickly discovered that they suffered from a distinct technological disadvantage. The cumbersome boats they brought to navigate inland waters proved impractical for the lakes and rivers they encountered.

The canoe, perfected by First Peoples over thousands of years, solved this problem. Crafted from split cedar and spruce and covered in layered birchbark, these canoes were light but immensely sturdy and, when sealed with gum and charcoal, flawlessly watertight. Explorers and settlers seized upon these superior craft for their own purposes, using the canoe to overtake lands and resources from the peoples who were here first.

This story reminds us that there has never been any lack of inventiveness within Indigenous communities. Yet, Indigenous-led initiatives are rarely utilized to address problems facing Indigenous communities.

That makes no sense.

Indigenous peoples are, and always have been, innovative. The problem is that, steeped in colonial practice, the infrastructure that others use to turn ideas into enterprise is too often unavailable to Indigenous innovators. Worse, structures and systems exacerbate the disconnect between innovative thought within Indigenous communities and the tools needed to operationalize these ideas.

Grand Challenges Canada is seeking to correct that enormously missed opportunity using the “grand challenges” model successfully refined to support global health innovation development over the past decade. Backed by the federal government, this approach matches innovators with needed capital and supports to develop, test and scale innovative solutions.

The Indigenous Innovation Initiative aims to employ a similar but uniquely adapted methodology to support innovations developed by and for First Nations, Inuit and Metis people. The goal is to empower a new generation of Indigenous innovators and ignite bold new ideas capable of creating system-wide transformation.

From a roster of 238 proposals, 10 new projects have been selected and provided with a total of $2.5 million in proof-of-concept grants. The projects range widely from agriculture to health, media, to advanced drone technology. Each project intuitively applies thousands of years of sustainability practices to address well-being for people and the planet.

The ideas and talent exist. We simply need to stop looking past it.

Behind these 10 projects, more wait for funding. The most promising will attract transition-to-scale financing and support. There is an obvious and pressing need for public and private sector engagement: to look beyond the established language of financing and research, to understand the underlying brilliance of the ideas and the potential to advance reconciliation in our lifetime.

The grand challenge model has shown that at least one or two of 10 projects will fulfil the promise of being transformational, of being able to gain breadth and impact, of being able to advance outcomes — and of being able to generate both money and change.

These Indigenous innovations — and the positive impact they seek to affect — will be fully realized if those in the fields of finance, investment and discovery match their stated desire with action by getting behind Indigenous innovation directly — and the great, transformational designs so close at hand.

The canoe remains a remarkable example of Indigenous innovation. Developed centuries ago, it is also a symbol of discovery and our shared journey. Today, there is an opportunity to spark a new generation of Indigenous innovation that if realized will, like the canoe, ultimately benefit us all.