Don’t rely on governments to spur technological breakthroughs

Governments only role should be to ensure that intellectual property (IP) rights are protected

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Don't rely on governments to spur technological breakthroughs

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Human ingenuity – often motivated by profit – is generally miles ahead of government regulations in resolving problems in society.

Take, for example, the issue of orphan wells in Alberta. In September 2016, the Alberta Energy Regulator said there were 84,100 inactive oil and gas wells in the province. The collapse of oil prices and a raging recession left tens of thousands of abandoned wells across Western Canada. The wells lie dormant because the owners were financially unable to seal them, remove their equipment and restore the land.

Alberta politicians have been concerned that taxpayers would be on the hook for the cleanup.

However, it only took one entrepreneur from Edmonton to propose a simple remedy.

Mitchell Pomphrey had been speaking for months with provincial officials about his idea of retrofitting old, unproductive wells into geothermal heat sources. According to the Financial Post, “the technology uses a system of tubes that are inserted into the wellbore. Water is then pumped down the hole, where the tubes absorb the earth’s natural heat before it is recirculated to the surface and the heat is transferred [to heat homes and businesses] in a furnace system.”

A pilot project will determine if the procedure can be commercialized. If so, orphan wells in Alberta can be repurposed to create geothermal energy and put a number of unemployed oil workers back to work.

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More fundamental to the economy of both Alberta and Canada, an engineering professor from the University of Calgary has created heavy oil and bitumen pellets. The idea was recently patented and is near pilot-scale production. Ian Gates invented pill-sized pellets that can vastly reduce the chance of a damaging spill or environmental accident.

The innovation provides a way to get Alberta’s vast oil reserves to market without using unreliable pipelines. The spill-free substance can then be transported via railway networks to ports.

This innovation could revolutionize the Alberta oil and gas sector. And kick-starting the oil industry will create economic opportunities and employment across the country.

Technological innovations, driven by ingenuity, may also revolutionize remote First Nation communities. According to CBC News, Drone Delivery Canada is considering using unmanned aerial drones to deliver food, medical supplies, general goods and mail to remote First Nations.

Moose Cree First Nation – with a remote community on Moose Factory Island in northern Ontario – faces crippling costs for transporting foods to the isolated community. Normal air transportation is prohibitively expensive.

If this innovative plan succeeds, it could also be used in other remote First Nations.

Governments want to advance innovation but often go about it the wrong way. For example, the recent 2017 federal budget earmarked funds for innovation, including investments in clean technology. A positive step was to expedite the immigration of highly-skilled workers but the budget largely focused on government solutions.

In fact, governments can best assist innovation by getting out of the way of entrepreneurs and inventors.

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But governments do have a role: they must ensure that intellectual property (IP) rights are protected. Stronger intellectual property and improved patent laws will ensure that innovators are protected.

Strong IP rights, for example, spur research and innovation in the pharmaceutical industry, bringing new drugs to market.

Similarly, the search for cleaner energy will be spurred by ingenuity and profit. Environmental regulation will help, but the IP of these initiatives also need to be protected.

Canadians need to have more faith in their ingenuity as innovators. Wc can develop new technologies to help solve challenges.

Relying on governments to mandate technological problem-solving hasn’t served us well to this point. That won’t change.

Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the think-tank Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

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