SFU Public Square 2014 Community Summit - Will Innovation Save Us?

with Ray Kurzweil and Richard Florida, moderated by CBC's Amanda Lang

October 22, 2014

Introductory Comments
Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Good evening … it’s my privilege to welcome you to SFU Public Square’s Third Annual Community Summit.

This is a special evening – the largest in a week of events focusing on the theme of innovation … and considering its impacts in areas such as health care, education, the environment and the economy.

Tonight we bring it all together by asking the big question:  “Will Innovation Save Us?”

SFU’s Public Square is an important part of Simon Fraser University’s Vision to be “Canada’s most community-engaged research university.” 

It’s a vision that animates everything we do at all three of our campuses – in Burnaby, Surrey and Vancouver.

Unlike traditional universities, we don’t see ourselves set apart from the community.

We see ourselves connected to the community.

Not an ivory tower, but a public square –

 … a public square in which our students, faculty and staff are enriched through their engagement with communities

… a public square in which communities are enriched through their engagement with us

…. a public square “for enlightenment and dialogue on key public issues”

That’s why we’ve made it our mission to be “the institution to which the community looks for education, discussion and solutions.”

And that’s what this Community Summit is all about … providing a forum for meaningful dialogue on issues that are important to the way we live our lives.

Some of you may remember that, in 2012, we examined isolation and disconnection in our communities, and discussed ways to strengthen civic engagement across economic, geographic and cultural divides.

Last year’s Community Summit took a hard look at BC’s economic future in an increasingly competitive global economy.

And this year, we are exploring innovation … and the role it plays in our lives, our economy, and our democracy.

“Innovation: The Shock of the Possible” 

We are asking questions such as: What is it about innovation that is critical to the way we confront our world?

After all, innovation is not a new idea.  It has been central to the human experience from the very beginning.

Imagining a better world is core to the human condition, fueling some of our greatest achievements … from an expanded democratic franchise, to extraordinary advances in science and technology.

We chose innovation as our subject for this year’s Community Summit because in a world defined by change and uncertainty, innovation can be seen as both a cure and a curse.

True, the word innovation connotes progress towards something better.

But it is not an unqualified good.

For almost every innovation that has improved the human condition, there have been serious issues and consequences with which to contend.

To take a few obvious examples:

Technological innovation has generated enormous economic wealth.  Yet, in advanced economies, that wealth has not been widely distributed, and the gap between the rich and the poor has risen dramatically. 

Innovation has also “creatively” destroyed whole industries and ways of life that have thrown millions out of work and put enormous pressure on social cohesion.

And, of course, we can draw a direct line from the Industrial Revolution that transformed almost every aspect of human life to a warming planet that now threatens our very life.

On that note, let me pause to recognize those who participated in this Summit’s “Rise Competition.”  Forty-six teams took on the challenge of looking at how we might adapt to rising sea levels in Metro Vancouver.

Their answers brought the complexity of these issues into sharp relief, and raised some further questions of their own.

In a world of accelerating change, increasing uncertainty, and existential threats like climate change … how do we harness innovation to improve the world in which we live?

At a time when economists predict that, in countries like ours, up to 47% of jobs are at risk of being automated away over the next two decades, are our civic structures and political institutions capable of responding in ways that maximize the benefits of innovation while limiting its costs?

What impacts will innovation have on a shared sense of community that grounds our identity and gives meaning to our lives? 

In sum, how do we work together to ensure that innovation contributes to a better society for all?

Difficult questions.

And happily I don’t have to answer them.

That job goes to Richard Florida, Ray Kurzweil and all of you here tonight.

Let me say, we are extremely fortunate to have these two renowned thinkers with us this evening.

They are both making enormous contributions to the questions we are posing at this Summit.

And to introduce them and moderate tonight’s discussion we are also very lucky to be joined by Amanda Lang.

As many of you will know, Amanda is the CBC’s senior business correspondent and a very insightful commentator on contemporary economic and social issues.

Of course, none of this would be possible without out our sponsors, Van City and the Vancouver Foundation.

Please join with me in thanking them and in welcoming Amanda Lang.