31 August 2009

Innovation, Teaching and Learning

It is suitable that, as we embark on the beginning of a new school year, we turn to thinking about the relationship between innovation, productivity, and teaching and learning, our core mission as an educational institution. "Canadian innovation starts in the classroom," an article today by Warren Jestin and Stan Shapton, asks us to consider the need for "Fresh thinking about our 'innovation ecosystem'" and "to more fully integrate the education process into our economic and social fabric." To do this, Jestin and Shapton say we need to promote more industry-academic collaboration, something the Colleges excel at.

The one fault to the article is that the authors fail to recognize the College system in their call for greater educational and R&D collaborations as we map out a road to economic recovery and increased productivity. Colleges train 70% of the workforce, and play an important role in addressing both the skills shortage and the skills gap in Ontario and Canada. Our role in promoting innovation literacy makes us ideal partners in a complementary "ecology of innovation" that promotes partnership, entrepreneurship, and educational pathways for students, industry and community partners alike.

10 August 2009

Economy n+1

Recent news reports about the breakup of Nortel have emphasized how far Canada is from a healthy R&D ecosystem. Pundits from across the political spectrum have lamented the loss of innovative technology patents that may result from selling off the assets of this storied company. Roger Martin, in a 7 August piece in the Globe ("Time for Ottawa to learn business hardball"), points out that Nortel's technologies have been developed with generous tax subsidies. The Canadian government, Martin asserts, should "step up" and assert control over the technology by blocking the sale of Nortel's key wireless patents to Sweden's Ericsson. Regardless of whether this happens, the dismantling of Nortel is a big blow to the R&D spectrum in Canada. Notwithstanding the spin offs and other benefits of the R&D giant, Nortel represents a significant part of Canadian business investment in R&D (BERD).

An Op-Ed piece in today's Report on Business, asks rhetorically in its headline: "What in the world are we waiting for?" In their Agenda article, Tom Jenkins, Kevin Tuer, and Ian Wilson further reinforce the tragedy that is the loss of Nortel in their thoughtful call to action on the digital economy - "the 3.0 digital economy." They refer to a very useful distinction in the development of web technologies, which I understand with the help of Unix CHMOD:
  • Web 1.0 - r [read]
  • Web 2.0 - rw [read, write]
  • Web 3.0 - rwx [read, write, execute]

What this means is that, where in the Web 1.0 world we could only browse and read web pages, in the Web 2.0 world we can read and write these pages easily (c.f. this blog and its Internet interface). In the Web 3.0 world, we can read, write, and execute programs from the browser, and from our mobile applications. (One of the best resources on web 2.0 is Web n+1: The Future of Web Interfaces, by Steven Pemberton of the W3C.) The point, reinforced here by Jenkins, Tuer and Wilson, is that in the n+1 world of information and communication technologies (ICT), Canada has a significant opportunity to capitalize on early investments and carve out a leading position globally. They rightfully point out that most, if not all, future productivity gains globally will be made with, or as a result of, ICT. Canada cannot afford to sit on the sidelines for this.

The authors do a good job of articulating what the digital economy is, and why it is important. Perhaps more significantly, they point out that Canada has made good investments on ICT use and access in the past, but we are slipping in international rankings on digital access, use and content provision. Investing in ICT - from design, R&D to education - is essential if we are to maintain or gain a leadership position in the world. Which brings us back to Nortel.

By all accounts, Nortel's new wireless technology is poised to rewrite the rules of mobile Internet access. As we move from the old, manufacturing-based economy, to the new, 3.0 digital economy, we need to ensure that we are preparing the next generation of entrepreneurs and skilled workers while supporting applied research and innovation throughout the tech sector. Relinquishing control of Nortel's patents (paid for, in large measure, with Canadian tax subsidies, as I mentioned above) seems like a step in the wrong direction. Time, it would seem, is of the essence.