SFU Public Square asks: Will innovation save us?

October 20, 2014

Op-Ed submitted to the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Can innovation inspire a new generation of imaginative thinkers and be harnessed to bring about a bright future of enlightenment, health and prosperity?  Or will innovation exacerbate inequality, destabilise public institutions, and lessen efforts to tackle the major challenges we face.

This week, SFU Public Square will confront these pivotal questions as part of our third annual Community Summit on “Innovation: The Shock of the Possible”.  Launched in 2012, SFU Public Square reflects our vision to be Canada’s most community-engaged research university, supporting public dialogue on some of the most important issues of the day,

This year’s focus on the part innovation plays in our lives promises to foster a fascinating conversation that brings together leading thinkers to discuss and debate the role of innovation in addressing the environmental, health, educational and economic challenges we face.

Importantly, innovation is not just about technological developments, although there are ground-breaking examples of technological advances to celebrate.  Innovation also refers to new ways of imagining our society, of reconfiguring our democracies, and of reinvigorating our social contract. We are talking about any new and hopefully improved way of interacting with our world.

Indeed, innovation and invention is the central story of the human experience.  We seek to improve our quality of life, to solve societal problems, and to generate new and creative ways to engage humanity.  In doing so, we recreate and reshape the world around us – often for the better, but sometimes with negative implications and impacts.

Consider the environment.  There is no question that our global environment is facing the catastrophic impacts of industrial development.  Some have faith that further innovations such as developing clean energies or creatively adapting to the consequences of climate change are the best ways to approach this challenge.  Others fear that overreliance on the promise of technical innovation to solve environmental problems contributes to public complacency and a lack of political will to undertake action to conserve energy and reduce our current dependency on fossil fuels.  In these ways, innovation can be seen both as an answer and as a contributor to environmental calamity.  In moving forward, how do we ensure we chart the right course?

Similarly, the health sector is subject to constant innovation as novel drugs and medical technologies are developed with what seems like breath-taking speed.  The increasing ability to save and prolong lives is often described as miraculous.  New medicines and even newer treatments are often based on years of research and clinical trials.  But the promise of advancing medical skills and greater human longevity come with questions about both the quality of the life that is extended, and the fiscal and social impacts on the public health care system.

In the area of education, knowledge itself is more readily available than at any other time in history.  The internet and other technologies have opened up new avenues and methods for everyone to acquire information.  These innovations have been held out by some as providing opportunities to deliver low-cost education on a massive scale. Others, however, maintain that these advocates mistake information for education.  They point to the limitations of the new technologies to foster critical thinking, creativity, research capabilities, and other high order attributes associated with a liberal education – attributes that they argue are more necessary than ever to navigate, evaluate and make intelligent use of the flood of information to which people are now exposed.  

In the economic sphere, technological innovation has proved effective at increasing productivity and opening up new business opportunities.  Yet these same technologies have reduced the need for labour, dislocated job markets and weakened the middle class.  This, in turn, has contributed to growing income inequality, social discord and political polarization.

The opportunities and challenges posed by innovation in these and other areas raise serious questions about the roles and responsibilities of citizens and governments in an age of amplified innovation.  Are our civic structures and political institutions equipped to anticipate and evaluate innovation’s benefits and costs?  Are they capable of responding in ways that limit the costs while ensuring that the benefits of innovation contribute to social betterment and are widely shared?  Do we need new, improved and, dare I say, innovative approaches to democracy to ensure fuller public understanding of prospective innovations and to provide citizens with greater opportunities to participate in making the inevitable trade-offs at stake?

These are the kinds of thorny questions that SFU Public Square will tackle in Innovation: The Shock of the Possible”.  How can innovation contribute to – and how might it hamper – finding workable solutions to the biggest challenges facing us today?   I hope you will be part of the conversation.