On Friday, June 2, I will have the honour of hosting His Excellency, The Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, and Open Text founder and chair Tom Jenkins, co-authors of a book on Canadian innovation called Ingenious: How Canadian Innovators Made the World Smarter, Smaller, Kinder, Safer, Healthier, Wealthier, and Happier. (The book, published by Penguin Random House, is available at the UBC Bookstore, and other stores. There’s also a version for children, Innovation Nation – see below).
Ingenious (which includes a profile of UBC’s Dr. Janet Werker, director of the Infant Studies Centre) cites many innovations developed by Indigenous people that predate the arrival of Europeans. Indigenous peoples invented the canoe, snowshoe, igloo, dogsled, lifejacket, and the bunk bed, among other innovations.
That spirit of innovation is still very much alive in Canada today. As the book tells us, from Bovril to BlackBerrys, lightbulbs to liquid helium, peanut butter to Pablum to insulin, Canadian ingenuity has had tremendous impact.
I am proud to say that UBC has played an important role in Canadian innovation. Currently we enjoy the designation by Reuters as Canada’s most innovative university and rank among the top 50 most innovative universities globally.
UBC researchers are innovating in all fields – from accounting and architecture to visual arts and zoology, and everything in between.
- In health care, think about AIDS or prostate cancer research, brain health or any number of biotechnology advances. In mining, our engineers and our methods are in demand around the world.
- In computer science, the “(dot)CA” domain was created by UBC’s Computing Facilities manager John Demco in 1987 – two years before the emergence of the World Wide Web.
- And if you’re concerned about your ecological footprint, you can thank Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel of UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning professors, who developed the concept back in the early 1990s.
As you can see from the above examples, innovation doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It has tangible societal benefits, and is where our research at UBC touches the provincial, national and global economies. (You can read more about UBC innovations here.)
BC is already an innovative province. The B.C. technology sector currently supports more than 100,000 jobs, houses more than 9,900 technology companies, and our homegrown talent is in high demand in Canada and around the world.
Innovation is occurring in every economic sector and every region of the province – whether it’s agriculture, health care, mining, education, tourism, technology, transportation, forestry and film. Whether on Vancouver Island, in the interior, the Fraser Valley or Northern BC, there are companies and individuals who are innovating. And we need to give them the support and encouragement they need.
Our province has one of Canada’s most vibrant innovation ecosystems, with pioneering companies across economic sectors, research agencies, industry and business associations, and post-secondary institutions and associations. But we need to do more.
Despite its great natural wealth and its industrial expertise, Canada is falling behind in terms of the productivity, competitiveness, and trained workforce needed to stay abreast of the competition. In global terms, we’re in a period of economic stagnation. If we are to regain our position as a leader in world trade, we must find new products, new methods of production, new markets for our goods; in a word, we must innovate.
This is especially important at a time of geo-political uncertainty. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and other recent events outside our borders have only increased the dangers and the opportunities we face.
Talent is what drives innovation, and the post-secondary education sector plays an important role as an economic growth engine. I am honored to have been appointed as Chief Advisor for BC Innovation Network and to work with leaders in industry and post-secondary education to transform our innovation ecosystem into an innovation network – a network that collaborates, communicates and advocates in ways that support all British Columbians.
The future holds great promise – that is, if we make the kinds of investment that will pay large dividends: investments in interdisciplinary learning and research; in cross-border collaboration; in incubators and start-ups; in the preparation of a trained and flexible workforce; in innovation clusters that combine complementary strength ths in a variety of fields; and in partnerships between universities, governments, and industry.
Perhaps the most important investment we can make to ensure the success of an innovation-based economy is in the development of human capital: the education of a creative, highly-skilled and diverse population. Then British Columbians will be truly prepared to participate as global citizens in an increasingly competitive and changing world.
UBC – and its sister institutions of higher learning in British Columbia – are prepared to do our part, and to help Canada foster the next generation of innovators. My colleagues at Simon Fraser University and the University of Victoria, Andrew Petter and Jamie Cassels respectively, both spoke eloquently about this this past week. Andrew Petter told the Vancouver Board of Trade:
“There is so much more we can do when we engage – when we connect our students, link our researchers and share our capacities with the communities we serve. The lesson for governments is that innovation demands their engagement too, in helping to ensure that BC has the talent and resources required to realize its full innovative potential. And the lesson for communities is to seize the opportunities that engaged universities and supportive governments provide, so that – together – we can create an innovation ecosystem that is second to none. If we get it right – if universities become engaged; governments provide support; and communities take up the challenge – I’m convinced that BC will indeed distinguish itself as a global innovation leader.”
While Jamie Cassels wrote in the Vancouver Sun that this is Canada’s time to lead the world in research and innovation:
“This is Canada’s moment. Now is the time for us to lead the world in higher education, research and innovation. In an era of closing borders and closing minds, Canada’s universities are reinforcing worldwide connections to ideas, collaborations and expertise. We have the talent, commitment and networks necessary to lead.”
I agree wholeheartedly. We do have the talent, commitment and networks. Now we must act.