Convocation Address, June 2018

June 15, 2018

Madam Chancellor, honoured guests, members of the Board of Governors and Senate, faculty members, staff, and – most especially – graduands, family and friends.

It is my privilege to preside at this culminating celebration of your education at Simon Fraser University.

As this ceremony unfolds, our message to you is clear.  As each of you receives your degree, I and my colleagues on stage, together with the entire SFU community, want you to know how proud we are of you.

We have seen your work. We have admired your performance.

Your degrees are not merely documents of accreditation. They are living testament to the faith we have in your ability to flourish in a changing world.

And that’s a good ability to have because the world is most assuredly changing.

A recent Oxford University study estimated that 47 percent of current jobs will be automated out of existence over the next 20 years.

When I attended university, lo those many years ago, I was encouraged to believe that if I developed a good career plan, that plan could serve me for a lifetime.

In today’s dynamic world, the notion of planning a lifelong career is as redundant as many of the careers for which I might once have planned.

The need to plan one’s future has been overtaken by the need to equip oneself for multiple futures, many of which are yet unknown. 

This point was driven home earlier this year at our annual SFU Public Square Community Summit – which explored the future of work.

One of the main presenters was American political activist and commentator Van Jones.

Like Chancellor Giardini, Jones had been thinking about different concepts of time, looking particularly at how changing perceptions of time have affected our approaches to work.

In the agrarian era, he noted, time was perceived as circular.

Life revolved around daily and seasonal cycles.

The sun came up, the sun went down.

Spring gave way to summer, which faded to fall and turned to winter – only to begin the cycle again.

Tomorrow was the same as yesterday.

In this era of circular time, Jones noted, the most important value for survival was preservation: preservation of culture, of knowledge, of ritual – and, most practically, preservation of seeds.

Then came the industrial age, an era of transformation and change.

In this era, time became linear: the past behind you, the present with you, the future stretching out in front of you but still distant.

Jones compared the industrial era to being on a train with the track ahead leading one to a new destination.

In this era – this unfolding environment – the key value for survival was planning. One could look ahead and prepare for a lifetime of well-ordered tomorrows.

But the industrial era has now been supplanted by a digital era in which, Jones said, we are no longer travelling into the future. 

Rather the future is coming towards us at ever-faster pace, no longer content to wait as our plans unfold.

In his words, the future is “onrushing” … bringing with it changes that overwhelm our ability to plan.

So today the key value for survival is not preservation or planning, but rather adaptability; or as Jones calls it: the capacity to pivot.

It was a compelling analysis, though I would argue that, even in the past, adaptability has been an important attribute.

There is a quote, chiseled into the floor of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, originally attributed to Charles Darwin.

It says: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent …. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

It is a tribute to the California Academy’s own adaptability that they have since rubbed out that mistaken attribution and given proper credit to Leon Megginson, a Professor of Management Studies who wrote those words in 1963 as part of a contemplation on Darwin’s work.

So, how do you learn to be adaptable?  Well, I’d argue that you choose to study in an institution like SFU.

As Canada’s engaged university, we have enabled you not only to gain knowledge of the disciplines you have studied, but also to think critically, to solve problems, and to make your own decisions.

And we have offered you diverse learning experiences, including opportunities to study at three distinct campuses, to learn in the classroom and in the community, and to gain intercultural understanding and international perspectives at home and abroad.

In sum, your education has been about equipping you with the knowledge, aptitudes and skills required to be adaptable citizens and to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

As you embark, now, from this stage of your education – as you embrace a future in which you are likely to have multiple careers – you will need to continue learning and updating your skills.

But, thanks to your education here, you will do so based on a strong foundation.

You also face the future as members of an adaptable community of over 155,000 SFU alumni spread across 140 countries around the world.

And when you need to update your knowledge and skills – when you confront issues outside the scope of your expertise – we at SFU will be here for you.

So, please stay in touch. In the years to come, the relationships that you have formed in your time here – with friends and colleagues, with faculty and mentors – will serve you better than any single lesson.

For now: this is your time. Enjoy it, but use it wisely.

Share it generously with those you love and just as generously with those who don’t have your advantages.

We will thrive in this changing world only if we all can adapt and flourish together.

Most importantly, seize your time with confidence and optimism.

You have earned the accolades and credits you receive today.

Make the most of them and you will lead us to a better world.

Again, congratulations all.