By David Lindsay
Ontario’s Universities held the first in a series of roundtables about the future of Ontario last Tuesday, hearing stimulating ideas from 20 top business, community and government leaders from organizations such as Google, Communitech, MaRS, TD and GM on what it will take to realize the province’s innovation potential.
The ideas were flowing at Cisco’s Toronto Innovation Centre, where host Rick Huijbregts, the organization’s Vice-President of Digital Transformation and Innovation, pointed to his own state of the art “smart” office space as an example of how innovation is having transformative effects on our workforce.
“Every light fixture here is an IT device and connected to the Internet and receives data,” he said about Cisco’s offices at RBC WaterPark Place, a 30-story tower where fibre cabling monitors and manages energy consumption, and even controls window blinds. On Cisco’s floors, technology has changed the work environment even more, with LED lighting receiving power over Ethernet cables, not electrical wires, and each light having its own IP address meaning it can be controlled through a computer or smartphone.
“I need a computer engineer to install the light fixture, not an electrician,” Huijbregts told the group, which then pondered whether “coding is the new blue collar job.”
Everyone around the table recognized that Ontario is already home to groundbreaking research and innovation, and stressed the need for partnerships in the context of rapid and accelerating disruption.
“We are being disrupted left and right,” said Huijbregts. “To really grab all these new opportunities, it only works when we work together – the private sector, academia and government – to look at co-creation, and to change the trajectory of Canada’s innovation.”
Partnerships in developing talent to help execute on innovation are key because “having the best talent is what will allow us to be successful in the future, given that we don’t know what the future holds,” said Gordon Frost, Partner at Mercer.
Participants talked about a hard shift in the kinds of skills they value in employees in this age of disruptive technology. Yes, they want university graduates, but what they focus on in interviews is how well they feel the candidate can learn. Are they flexible? Are they skilled at empathy? Are they creative, and can they be resilient as they face a disruptive environment?
“You can’t have 10 years’ experience in a framework that’s only been out for six months,” said Connected Lab’s Jessica Lovelock.
“With things moving so quickly, role-related knowledge is likely going to be irrelevant in 30 years. You need to be someone who is constantly learning, who is much more flexible, skilled at empathy,” said Google Canada’s Fab Dolan.
More experiential learning was called for, and non-profits and small and medium sized businesses said they could benefit from exposure to talent through more university partnerships as well.
For their part, businesses are grooming talent by pairing employees with mentors and rotating teams every few months to stretch their boundaries and bring new insights to different areas of business. At MaRS, an investment in people involves “bursts of learning” where employees go back to school in between periods on the job.
“Everybody is creative and everyone needs to practice those things actively,” said Lovelock. “All of these things can be taught. They are becoming part of pretty much any career path.”
Ontario is a destination of choice for international talent thanks to our strong institutions, high quality of life, openness and spirit of collaboration, they said, but we must do more.
TD Labs’ Ian McDonald said many programs at his organization are singularly focused on women in technology, as the financial institution turns a lack of gender diversity into a business opportunity.
University leaders from Carleton, Lakehead, Laurentian, Laurier, Nipissing, OCAD, Queen’s, Ryerson, Trent, University of Toronto, UOIT, Waterloo, Western and York were there as well to hear how universities can be good partners in boosting innovation. One leader of an innovative business noted that universities are central to the innovation environment in Ontario, but there was room for the sector to take an even greater role in promoting the “soft skills” graduates are learning.
“Creative thinking, active listening, empathy, perspective — I would challenge our university partners to take a more active role in teaching those directly, rather than indirectly,” said Sheldon McCormick, Regional GM at Uber. “Flip the order. Put creativity at the forefront.”
Zachary Rose, who represents students through the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, said universities could also help prepare students for new jobs and to learn throughout their career by helping them to understand the skills they are gaining. “It helps shift their perspective of what they could be doing,” he said.
The importance of innovation has come up frequently throughout our #futuring campaign. It is clear from what we’ve read that comprehensive innovation is vital for facing the environmental, economic and social challenges that are ahead of us. It’s evident from our survey responses as well that Ontario’s ability to capitalize on new technologies to create a better future is also top of mind.
Leading Ontario to a better future is going to take hard work. But judging by everyone at the table Tuesday, we have the talent and ideas to get us there. We’ll continue to collect insights as we host roundtables on youth employment, the aging population, and diversity and inclusion in the coming weeks.
You don’t have to be at a roundtable to share your ideas about the future. Tell us what we need for a brighter future by filling out our survey link or writing to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to hearing from all of you as we work together to build a better future.
President and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities