By David Lindsay
President and CEO, Council of Ontario Universities
Last year, Ontario celebrated the win by University of Waterloo professor Donna Strickland of the Nobel Prize for Physics – the first by a woman in that field for 55 years and only the third in a line that began with the incomparable Marie Curie.
To my mind, Dr. Strickland’s Nobel award symbolizes why there is reason for great optimism about Ontario’s future – even in the face of a growing perception that 2019 is likely to be year, for Canada and the world, of economic slowdown, social uncertainty and political turmoil.
It is true that Ontario faces some difficult headwinds – not least the planned closure of General Motors’ Oshawa plant, the economic knock-on effects of Alberta’s oil-industry crisis, and troublesome levels of household debt, to name just three. Add in the province’s fiscal challenges that the government has committed to addressing, and the general unease about the year ahead is not without merit.
But yes, I am very optimistic when I think of Ontario’s short and long-term future. Why though, should a Nobel Prize – an academic award for a highly technical invention that only advanced physicists understand – mean anything for the ordinary person on the street?
Firstly, Dr Strickland’s work, co-inventing a technique that created ultra-short laser pulses and dramatically increased the power of lasers, has brought great practical benefits to humankind in the form of industrial applications and medical innovations such as heart stents and laser eye surgery. Dr. Strickland, who was born and raised in Guelph and who started on her stellar path as an undergraduate at McMaster University, is a true Ontarian who has given back to the world in spades.
And while Dr. Strickland does indeed sit at the pinnacle of intellectual achievement, I believe the kind of talent she displays is present across all corners of Ontario, from the classroom to the laboratory, from the farmer’s field to the hospital ward, and from the boardroom to the factory floor. This talent, combined with a propensity for hard work and resourcefulness, is why I believe that the province’s future is bright.
Every young person has potential, and a successful society has to nurture their talents and shape them with the skills that will enable them to put these talents to use in a socially beneficial way. All three levels of education have this responsibility, but in a world which is being reshaped so comprehensively by technological disruption, the task of educating students with the necessary mix of knowledge, talent and skills to make it in the workplace is falling more intensely on postsecondary education.
Working in the postsecondary sector, I can see first-hand the tight connection between higher education and Ontario’s economic and social success. While universities are by no means the only input into prosperity and quality of life, I believe that these important social outcomes would be harder to achieve or sustain without them.
While the pursuit of knowledge and learning remains a core mission of universities, the link between a university education and the workplace becomes ever more explicit the more our society and economy are disrupted and the future becomes unpredictable. It is therefore incumbent upon universities to ensure that students have the adaptable skills necessary for a successful lifelong career and that Ontario has the talented workforce it requires to be competitive in this global environment. Universities are indeed committed to this.
While not every student will go on to invent game-changing technology in the manner of Dr. Strickland, universities are working, more than ever, to mould each student’s individual talent into a form that will help them confront, and prosper in, the sometimes daunting new economy. The employment market in Canada and beyond was drastically reshaped in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as digital technology and automation meant that many types of jobs that had been lost did not return.
As a result, universities have responded with a renewed commitment to helping all students, whether in the humanities, the STEM or professional fields, develop the skills that employers need. They have put more resources into expanding interdisciplinary learning and experiential, hands-on learning opportunities, grown their network of incubators and other entrepreneurial initiatives, found new ways to partner with Ontario’s employers, and kept evolving how they deliver programs to meet the shifting demands of the job market. These are important innovations that universities must, and will, continue to make.
Also of great importance to Ontario’s future is the contribution the institutions make to the province’s growth and competitiveness. They are not only a breeding ground for new ideas and inventions, but increasingly a key catalyst in commercializing these breakthroughs to create businesses and jobs.
The most revolutionary – and to some, the most troublesome – evolving technology is, of course, artificial intelligence. To my mind, embracing AI’s power for positive change, as well as harnessing its power to mitigate the potential labour impacts – is absolutely essential for Ontario’s economic future. Ontario has already earned itself a reputation of being the continent’s second most important talent hub for machine learning after Silicon Valley – due in no small part to the activity of our universities and the institutes and companies that have set up around them.
Many studies, including a recent report from consulting firm McKinsey, suggest that AI will create new professions to take the place of those affected by it. And if the province, with help from our growing talent pool, puts its mind to it, the power of machine learning – which is already being used to cure diseases, transform retail, improve consumer products and so much more – can be directed to help Ontario thrive in this globally competitive marketplace.
Just like the economic and socio-political hazards that lay ahead in 2019, our long-term technological future is hard to predict. But one thing is clear – it will take a lot of talent and ingenuity to ensure we come out thriving. Thankfully, Ontario is blessed with copious amounts of both. That is why, in celebrating Dr Strickland’s great achievement, we should be optimistic about the future.