Brain Circulation to Achieve Innovation and Knowledge Dependence
President and Vice-Chancellor
University of Waterloo
The University of Waterloo is located at the heart of Canada’s technology hub. In just over 60 years, it has become a leading comprehensive university with 36,500 full- and part-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs. Consistently ranked Canada’s most innovative university, Waterloo is home to advanced research and teaching in science, engineering, math, applied health sciences, environment, and arts.
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1- Students must be connected to the real world through opportunities to get work experience in their field as well as a curriculum that encourages innovative, international and interdisciplinary collaboration.
2- Canada’s investments into its digital infrastructure need to be foresighted. Since we already have a position of leadership in terms of our digital infrastructure and world-class talent, Canada should not fall behind if we make the right investment decisions for our future.
3- Crucial for Canada’s future success will be preparing our economy and social structures for issues relating to water management and purification, the aging of our population, and the energy-environment nexus.
Canada needs to continue to build more opportunities here, so that we continue to attract the brightest from around the world to work and study here. We should aim for being an innovation and creativity hub that develops disruptive innovation that can scale up across the world.
What must Canadian universities do to ensure that their students are ready for the future economy and will add value to it? What initiatives have you launched at UWaterloo to achieve these goals?
I definitely distinguish and separate the University of Waterloo from many other universities, because the disconnect between education and employment does not exist for us. Life here is real life. A University of Waterloo student in her five years of undergraduate education also gains the equivalent of two years of work experience. The kind of scholarship and research that we conduct here is also highly applicable to the real world. For instance, our Global Entrepreneurship and Disruptive Innovation (GEDI) initiative provides a platform where industry partners, our researchers and our students can work together on solutions that interest all of them from the very beginning. This makes our research and innovation much more applicable to the real world.
We are very committed to the highest level of curiosity here, but at the same time, we understand the problems, challenges and opportunities that the whole world is facing. Whether you are studying computer science or civil engineering or history, you have to be innovative, international and interdisciplinary at the University of Waterloo. So our students don’t have to be reminded of the real world, it is entrenched in their DNA.
How competitive is Canada’s digital technology sector? What must we do improve our it and our digital infrastructure?
I truly believe that this is a significantly high priority for Canada. If we are not a nation that raises the standard of everything that falls under digital technology, we will be left behind. Specifically, we need to focus on data storage, data management, data curation, our computational capacity, our computer networks and our interpretation of data. Digital technology is such a fast growing area that we need to understand the future need for investment today and ensure that we are making the right decisions for our future. We also need to understand the interconnectedness of different aspects of the digital economy; so investing in one area might require augmenting investment in other areas in order to build capacity. Canada is in a position of leadership when it comes to digital infrastructure and we should not fall behind anybody if we make the right decisions. We can punch above our weight because we have the most critical piece of the digital puzzle: the talent.
Do you agree that Canada is moving from being a brain drain nation to a brain gain one?
I believe “brain circulation” is a more appropriate term. When I started getting involved in research administration, I was very concerned that 60% of all our science PhDs moved to the US very shortly after graduation. PhD students are a very big investment and universities or countries do not want to lose them on a regular basis.
Then we established the Canada 150 Research Chairs and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). So if you find a university catalogue from the 1960s, you will see that the majority of the faculty members would have had their PhDs from the US, the UK or Germany. If you do the same thing now, you will see an unbelievably large number of Canadian PhDs in our faculty. Today, 84% of our start-ups want to remain in Canada. That is the kind of brain gain that we did not have previously. Canadian institutions’ capacity has grown significantly to produce more brains so that the size of the talent pipeline is much larger.
At the University of Waterloo, we even encourage our PhDs to gain international experience. They may leave Canada for a period of time, but they come back with more experience, more ideas, more maturity and often with more money.
At the same time, the University of Waterloo attracts a large number of international students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. They all choose Canada because it has an open and inclusive culture with a lot of opportunities. But we cannot get complacent; we need to keep building opportunities here. Canada should be viewed as a hub of innovation and creativity from which companies can thrive and are able to access a growing global market.
Which areas of research at the University of Waterloo do you feel will have the most potential for long-term impact in Canada’s future economy?
I will start with water. By the year 2030 our demand for water will be 56% higher than the supply. We look at it as a comprehensive issue, so we not only look at the scientific aspects of water such as its properties, its contamination and cleaning, but also the management side. At the same time, water is a $40 billion business, but the main issue is that our society cannot survive without water. The University of Waterloo has a water institute that deals with this issue as a whole.
Aging is another huge issue. According to McKinsey, by the year 2050, there will be only two working Canadians per retired Canadian. So what do we do? How do we prepare our country for something like this? How do we make use of technology to deliver sustainable solutions to ensure that we are aging gracefully and we are not a major burden on the economy, healthcare system, etc.?
The third area is the link between energy and the environment; the two are inseparable. We want to enable the world to continue to provide access to energy for every single person but also ensure that this is not happening at the expense of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soil we grow our food with.
Where do you see the Canadian economy in 2050? Are you optimistic?
I am definitely optimistic because in that future, I see the University of Waterloo as one of the top innovation universities in the world.
Canadians will continue to enjoy our natural resources, but in the future our economy will shift significantly away from resource dependence to innovation dependence and knowledge dependence. Canada will be seen as an exemplary democracy in the world, and there will be fantastic mobility of people moving in and out of the country. We will be a country that will have developed tremendous confidence in saying, “I can do it and I can do it first”. Canada will probably move from mass manufacturing to activities like customization all the way from healthcare to personal needs. Innovation will have penetrated into every single cell of our population and not only will we understand the issues and challenges but we will also not shy away from coming up with solutions.