Why Canada’s universities must be at the forefront of innovation

In a common science fiction plot, robots take our jobs in some distant dystopia. Such a future may be coming into focus more quickly than we imagine. But rather than carrying a sense of gloom and dread, our actual technological future is one to embrace ― because Canada’s economy depends on it.

A recent Neptis Foundation analysis reveals that the Greater Toronto Area was home to nearly 2.4 million jobs in 2016. That’s 75,000 more than a decade before, but it doesn’t show the real picture: amidst that overall growth, jobs are declining in sectors that have long formed the bedrock of our economy. Consider manufacturing, down almost 130,000 jobs in that 10-year period. Clearly, automation has played a key role here, a scenario expected to continue in communities across the country.

This changing landscape was starkly illustrated by news of General Motors’ impending Oshawa plant closure. There’s no denying the decline of the automotive manufacturing industry’s decades-long dominance ― yet this landscape actually reveals the way forward.

We must get past using “innovation” as a buzzword or political prop, and instead hedge our economic bets on its unmatched potential. As technology advances, so too does the nature of how we work. Innovation invites new opportunities ― those we can see right now and those to anticipate ― even in conventional labour markets. To seize these moments of change, it takes ideas born from novel partnerships that are erasing the borders of different industries.

As automation impacts at least half of Canadian jobs in the next decade, unique new collaborations are imperative. Graduates entering the workforce simply must have the skills necessary to thrive in an economy balancing human needs and technological change. As a result, Canada’s universities must be at the forefront of the solution.

One such collaboration now exists between Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, and OCAD University in Toronto. While at first glance an unlikely partnership, it is actually a natural, outside-the-box union that marries design and digital creativity skills, and strategies with artificial intelligence and machine learning. Add deep industry collaborations from both, and you have the makings of a new labour force for the 21st century.

This Government of Ontario-funded tech-design project is dubbed the “Digital Human Connection.” It builds on the schools’ current efforts to deliver applied research in such sectors as automotive, digital media, data analytics, technology, and wellness. Its graduates will be poised to strengthen the country’s manufacturing sector through advanced manufacturing, where technology and design open new R&D avenues.

As automation impacts at least half of Canadian jobs in the next decade, unique new collaborations are imperative

Industry has sought Ontario Tech University and its world-class climatic wind tunnel, for instance, to develop an autonomous bus that will operate in all seasons on campus. It will serve as a test platform instrumented to collect vast arrays of data from multiple sensors as students, staff and visitors are shuttled from points across campus.

A key goal is understanding how passengers interact with the technology both onboard the vehicle, and as the vehicle approaches and departs pick-up/drop off locations in a dynamic, real-world environment. It was clear that to overcome key challenges, engineers and scientists needed the help of artists and designers to problem solve not only the function of the bus, but also the user experience aboard that bus.

Simultaneously, OCAD U is building the data visualization systems to test and implement e-bus transportation in Canada. Well-rounded students who can solve manufacturing and technological challenges with an eye to the human experience will be best positioned to succeed in the new economy.

Sara Diamond, President of Ontario College of Art and Design.

Innovative partnerships beget newfound opportunities: Supporting automakers in their testing phases, while planning the transformation of our cities and towns to integrate autonomous vehicles. Improving quality of life through new forms of efficient mass transportation. Solving the issue of health care delivery through profound data analysis while considering the patient impact. Confronting our carbon challenges while devising new forms of energy delivery. Pick a sector and find limitless possibilities when design, digital knowledge, science, technology and engineering work together.

As industries modernize, they will require new levels of support to deliver solutions to real-world challenges. This comes from universities unafraid, and well equipped, to pivot and work together to yield a new workforce with complementary skill sets — graduates with both an innovative mindset and the soft skills to advocate for change.

Strategic partnerships, like that between OCAD U and Ontario Tech University, are not optional: they should be the new normal. To create such opportunities and prepare for an uncertain economic future, we must rethink how students learn, and who they learn with, to uncover skills that will be well-served when disruptive new technologies continue to change industries and impact jobs.

Sara Diamond is the president and vice-chancellor of OCAD University. Steven Murphy is the president and vice-chancellor of Ontario Tech University.

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