What a rush

Exploring new frontiers never gets old

Do you remember the first time you got hooked on a theory, a concept, a doctrine or maybe even a whole field of study when you were at the University of Waterloo?

Maybe you were listening to an inspirational talk in the Arts Lecture Hall, and you’ll never forget the thrill you felt for a whole new way of looking at the world.

Maybe you were working away at enterprise planning with your team of fellow student-entrepreneurs at Velocity, and your mentors came through with some advice that forever changed how you approach business practice.

Maybe you were on a co-op work term in downtown Toronto or Silicon Valley or on the other side of the world, and realized for the first time that your education means everything to your career.

That feeling never gets old – the feeling of exploring new frontiers of knowledge, whether new to the world or maybe just to ourselves. It’s that spark of learning and innovation that keeps us learning our whole lives.

I felt that rush in reading a new book by Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps, Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change.

"The point of his book is that we have to get the fundamentals of our economy and society just right if populations are to truly flourish. And not just financially — in the sense of realizing one’s full potential, engaging with life creatively through career success, enjoyment of the arts, cultural engagement, and contributing to our communities."

In Phelps’s view, innovation is what makes the good life possible. It’s one of the core arguments he made here on campus in March when he delivered, at my invitation, a University of Waterloo President’s Lecture on these themes.

What excites me about Phelps’s work is not only its intrinsic brilliance, but another reason altogether: the world may finally be ready for the University of Waterloo.

Because you and I are deeply engaged with this institution, it’s easy for us to forget just how radical this place truly is. It’s the birthplace of a revolution. Co-operative education was an iconoclasm when we were founded in 1957. Now, “experiential education” is the buzziest of all the buzz words permeating the higher-education industry.

Entrepreneurship? It’s right there in Waterloo’s original DNA — in our culture, in our intellectual property policy and our approach to commercialization. Now, our peers in Canada and around the world are trying their best to close the gap with Waterloo and a tiny smattering of other universities that can truly claim to be prophets of a new way of doing education.

Beyond our campus, though — that’s where the University of Waterloo contributes to the good life for our students and our society. In the products and processes our entrepreneurial students bring to the world, whether in the form of research and discovery or adding new energy and innovation to the economy. In the groundbreaking research that challenges old political dogmas or scientific consensus. In the way our professors shape public opinion and enrich the public discourse. In the leviathan companies our people have taken into the world to disrupt — and invent — whole industries.

We’ll be talking about these and other local and international innovation success stories at the Waterloo Innovation Summit on campus this fall. I encourage you to come if you’re available.

As a member of our Waterloo alumni family, I think you’d agree with me that Professor Phelps is right.

True social prosperity is about flourishing, as individuals and as communities. It’s about “the conception, development, and spread of new methods and products — indigenous innovation down to the grass roots.”

Perhaps public policy leaders, economists and social visionaries will catch up with Phelps’s belief in the beauty and immense societal value of innovation.

Perhaps they’ll catch up with Waterloo.