UBC President's Speeches and Writings

Universities and the "Innovation Economy" Ono, Santa Jeremy Oct 28, 2016

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1  Universities and the “Innovation Economy” A talk for the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce, 28 October 2016  Thank you very much.  It’s a real honour to be invited to speak to you today, here in the heart of the beautiful south Okanagan.    This is not my first visit to Kelowna; since taking on the presidency of UBC, I’ve come at least half-a-dozen times, for meetings of one kind or another; most memorably, perhaps, during the Royal visit to UBC’s north Kelowna campus.  And each time I’ve come here, I’ve been more and more impressed: by the kindness and 2  generosity of the people I’ve met here;  by the beauty of this part of beautiful BC; and by all the signs of a flourishing local economy that’s expanding to meet the needs and aspirations of a growing population.  Historically, the south Okanagan has depended for its prosperity on agriculture, especially fruit growing and wine production.  Tourism is having an increasing impact, as the Okanagan brings in thousands of people every year from all 3  over the world; and most recently, we’ve seen growth in real estate, with a steady influx of new residents attracted by all the amenities of the region.  But there are signs of other kinds of growth too.  According to the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Kelowna is the most entrepreneurial city in the country—that is, the best place to start and grow a business.  To achieve this kind of status, you must have the right kind of 4  infrastructure in place, and according to the Federation, Kelowna is in that position.    Let me quote from the Kelowna Daily Courier, which reported this story just a couple of weeks ago.  The writer cites the opinion of the manager of the Central Okanagan Economic Development Commission, who lists the components of Kelowna’s economic infrastructure, including “the highly skilled Kelowna workforce, UBC Okanagan, Okanagan College, air access through Kelowna’s 5  airport, a welcoming business community and a quality of life that attracts entrepreneurs, workers, students, families and retirees alike.”  The article goes on to point out something potentially even more significant: the city’s growing capacity in connectivity, which provides “massive internet capabilities for businesses that need it.”   “That connectivity,” says the article, “has helped the Okanagan become home to more than 750 high-tech firms that 6  have created a $1.3-billion-a-year sector employing more than 7500.”  Connectivity, high-tech, and a highly-skilled work-force: this is the future, and it’s already here in Kelowna.    These are the key elements in any plan to develop the prosperity and wellbeing of our population locally, regionally, and nationally.  And to derive the maximum amount of advantage from them, we need to think out of the box: we need to bring 7  new ways of thinking into the equation, to draw on the capacity for innovation that marks every successful enterprise—whether it’s in business, in technology, in medical research, or in the arts.   The business I’m in is education: and the spirit of innovation is very much at the heart of what we are trying to do in our schools, colleges, and universities today.  Let me speak for a little about innovation in the classroom.  At the level of undergraduate education, things are very 8  different from what they were a decade or two ago, and innovation has transformed the nature of teaching and learning.  The era of the “sage on the stage” has passed, and students have progressed far beyond the passive recipients of information they were in the old days.  Today professors tend to be facilitators, creating the right environments for students to acquire information in a variety of dynamic ways.  Courses in many areas, such as law, medicine, and engineering, are 9  often case-based or problem-based, requiring students to work collaboratively in teams to find solutions—and preparing them for the way problems are tackled in the working world beyond university.    Many of our instructors use the flipped-classroom approach: students essentially learn the materials outside the classroom, then come to class to apply what they’ve learned to questions and problems presented to the group.  10  Instructors of traditionally large classes now can determine exactly what their students know at any given moment in a class simply by inviting students to provide immediate electronic responses to questions, making it possible to measure the degree of understanding (or misunderstanding) among participants in the class.   At UBC we are responding to pressures for change by introducing new courses to prepare students for work in fields that 11  barely existed a decade ago.  A student in Arts can now take a program in Cognitive Systems, in which the participating units are Philosophy, Psychology, Linguistics, and Computer Science.  Through the interrelated study of these fields, the student gains a comprehensive understanding of human cognition, and learns to apply this knowledge to create intelligent artificial systems.  A student in applied Science can twin her studies in hydraulic engineering with a program in entrepreneurship, so that she is prepared 12  for the challenges of commercializing and monetizing her skills.   And then of course there’s the whole area of information technology. The huge expansion of digital tools has revolutionized the business of teaching and learning. Many courses now take a blended approach, mixing face-to-face presentations with online or video presentations.  Students now have instantaneous access to vast electronic databases, and require a 13  sophisticated understanding of software tools to access and use that information.  So you can see that innovation lies at the very heart of what we do to prepare our students for the world beyond our gates.  And it’s in this same spirit that universities are gearing up to meet the social and economic challenges that face our society today.  Canada, despite its great natural wealth and its industrial expertise, is falling behind in terms of the productivity, 14  competitiveness, and trained workforce we need to stay abreast of the competition.  In global terms, we’re in a period of economic stagnation; and the key to regaining our position as a leader in world trade is to innovate: to find new products, new methods of production, new markets for our goods.    To respond to this challenge, the federal government has recently launched two important initiatives: a fundamental science review and a consultation on Canada’s 15  innovation agenda. Combined, these two initiatives aim to address how best to foster an innovation-based economy in the 21st Century. In doing so, they are asking important questions about the globally competitive levels of research funding, best practices for “big science”, and whether or not Canadian innovators and researchers have the right kinds of support to achieve their goals.   Our province is responding in similar fashion. The BC government is just as 16  concerned to find ways of giving our economy a jump-start.    Since 1998 the province has provided important matching dollars through its Knowledge Development Fund to ensure universities attract Canada Foundation for Innovation funding for research infrastructure. Through this and other provincial programs such as Genome BC and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, UBC and our sister institutions in BC have been able to build 17  the kind of solid foundation that makes advanced research possible and encourages innovation.  The province has created its own blueprint for innovation, in the form of the BC Tech Strategy announced earlier this year.  Through grants and other financial incentives to employers and educational institutions, the government hopes to stimulate applied research, create a highly-skilled workforce, and encourage job growth.  This is an important 18  acknowledgement of the role the tech sector is playing in our provincial economy as a complement to the resource sector; BC is coming to terms with the reality that our economy is increasingly dependent on science and technology, and so is investing heavily in research and innovation.  And as I hope you know, UBC itself is a major player in the research enterprise. We are the second largest research institution in Canada. In the past year we have attracted $600 million in research funding, 19  supporting almost 9,000 research projects across the university.  We conduct 90% of the industry-sponsored research in BC.  In 2016, UBC was in the 92nd percentile for start-up company creation among North American universities, and in the 97th percentile among Canadian universities. So you can see, UBC is a significant participant in the research strategies promoted by our regional and national governments.  Let me tell you about some of the ways in which UBC is contributing to the 20  innovation agenda.  One of the most important is through our commitment to the development of research clusters.  These are interdepartmental networks of leaders in particular fields who are brought together to investigate large problems that resist individual solutions, but are opening up their secrets in the face of collaborative research.    So we have a biodiversity group comprising members of our botany and zoology departments working together on 21  “Adapting Biosystems,” figuring out the processes by which evolution affects different species in different ways.  Another cluster has been formed by bringing together researchers from the Faculty of Forestry, Botany, the Michael Smith Laboratories, Biodiversity, and the Faculty of Land and Food Systems: they have formed a forestry and plant productivity group studying plant genomics and bio-products from renewable resources.  22  A third cluster that has brought scholars from a variety of fields together is one with the title “Remembering and Commemorating Trauma.”  Taking its cue from the work of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Committee, scholars in this interdisciplinary group are interested in the impact of traumatic events on the individual, on society, and on marginalized groups within society.  It’s made up of researchers from History, Social Work, Creative Writing, Critical Studies, Psychology, Indigenous Studies, and 23  Philosophy.  An important aspect of this research is its examination of the ways in which our responses to trauma can be used to heal, reconcile, and empower.  As the last example illustrates, such clusters encourage scholars to break through disciplinary barriers and engage with one another in innovative ways, leading to both knowledge creation and knowledge translation—that is, the application of new discoveries for the health and wellbeing of society. 24  From this, I hope it’s clear that our commitment to innovation does not stop at our gates.  As a major research university, one of the top 40 in the world, UBC supplies both the technical know-how and the qualified graduates to keep our industries at the forefront of world markets.  We contribute to the development and evolution of new companies, products, and services, and create the new technologies that industry needs to remain productive and competitive. UBC students have the benefit of the largest co-op education 25  program in Western Canada, gaining invaluable work experience before they graduate, and facilitating the exchange of knowledge between industry and academia.    To further promote research-industry collaborations, UBC’s University-Industry Liaison Office—the UILO—helps start-ups and spin-offs, and provides the kind of network and know-how that enables researchers to bring their discoveries into the marketplace. UILO is comprised of two distinct groups: the Sponsored Research 26  Group and the Technology Transfer Group. Both groups are recognized nationally, negotiating more than 2,500 contracts, issuing hundreds of patents and licensing agreements, and spinning off new companies each year.     One of UBC’s most successful spin-offs is Westport Innovations, BC's largest clean tech company. The company engineers the world's most advanced natural gas engines and vehicles, reducing emissions and fuel costs, employing more than 450 people in 27  BC and over 1,000 in Canada, all with technology developed at UBC. The company was initially built through close partnerships with UBC researchers, grad students and lab facilities, and maintains extensive research partnerships with UBC to this day.  Collaboration of this kind, between university research and industrial application, is becoming more and more significant, and it is this kind of collaboration that really defines what we’re calling the “innovation economy.”  28  Let me give you an example from close to home: UBC Okanagan has begun to develop a 30-acre Innovation Precinct to accommodate productive long-term engagement with industry and non-profits.  This will bring together industrial partners who want to draw on our research excellence to develop and test new products.  Earlier this year UBC Okanagan signed an agreement with Avcorp Industries from Delta BC, a leading supplier of integrated composite and metallic aerostructures.  The agreement is to 29  develop a “Learning Factory  for Advanced Composites,” which will integrate industrial production with learning and research, drawing on the expertise of our faculty and giving our students hands-on experiential learning.    I know that a number of people here today have been involved with this venture in one capacity or another, and are keen to see it succeed.  Indeed, this kind of partnership holds great promise, not only for the university and industrial partners, 30  but also for the economy of the region, since such arrangements have a ripple effect, bringing training for students, creating manufacturing jobs in the private sector, and offering the promise of new industries and a diversified economic base in the Okanagan.    There’s an added dimension to growing the innovation economy in southern BC through university research.  I recently had the pleasure of participating in a conference with the president of the University of 31  Washington, at which we explored the possibility of creating a “tech corridor” in the Pacific Northwest.  The “Cascadia Corridor” would bring together some of the finest minds on the continent to create the kind of synergy you find in Boston or the Silicon Valley.    In conjunction with the University of Washington, we’re exploring ways of creating an innovation hub that would see the great universities of the Pacific Northwest collaborate with each other and 32  tech giants like Microsoft and Google, in the development of new tools and applications that would transform the economies of the region.  And since that conference, UBC has been taking a fresh look at areas like biomedical engineering and digital media, with a view to optimizing our research capabilities through joint projects.  So 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 33  cross-border collaboration; in incubators and start-ups; in research clusters that combine complementary strengths in a variety of fields; and in partnerships between universities, governments, and industry.  But 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 highly-skilled, flexible, and creative population.  It’s a cliché, perhaps, 34  but the wealth of a nation lies in the capabilities and resourcefulness of its people; and the key to tapping those capabilities, that resourcefulness, lies in education.  Great universities like UBC nurture and stimulate the capabilities, imagination, and leadership qualities that are the foundation of a society’s prosperity.    I’m speaking now not only about economic prosperity, but social prosperity too.  We need to develop new ideas, not just in science and technology, not just in 35  industrial production, but in meeting the social challenges that still lie before us.  We need to find ways to bring First Nations fully into the circle of economic prosperity, and to realize the potential in First Nations youth.  We need to break the cycle of poverty and ill-health in our big cities, and to solve the seemingly intractable problems like drug use and homelessness.  Innovation is needed here too—big ideas, original thinking, a rejection of the status quo.    36  Such challenges demand innovative thinking by every sector of society, working together for the common good.  UBC is doing its part there too; but that’s a subject for another day!  Thank you.     


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