The rapid pace of technological innovation is swiftly and dramatically disrupting our world — reshaping how we communicate, how we work and how we learn.

Universities are poised to play an increasingly important role in these areas as they capitalize on decades global relationships forged by academic partnerships and as they produce the new leaders in artificial intelligence, next-generation computing and climate science - innovations that just might represent humanity's best hope of transcending barriers along social, economic and cultural lines.

But post-secondary institutions must act with a heightened sense of urgency to ensure they anticipate the needs of tomorrow’s workforce, and that their global reach increases at a time of geopolitical turmoil and economic uncertainty, university and business leaders said.

Janice Charette, Canada's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, said science and innovation are at the heart of Canada's efforts to maintain bridges with the U.K., and as the two countries seek to accelerate the commercialization of emerging technologies. 

Just over a year and a half ago, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and amid the rise of populism around the world, the countries signed a memorandum of understanding focusing on advanced manufacturing, clean technologies and quantum. Charette said the resulting interest has "flourished beyond what we could have imagined."

"Universities are in a unique position to build bridges between the practical and the theoretical, between academia and industry, and between students and faculty from every corner of our world," Charette said in an interview ahead of the Waterloo Innovation Summit, where British and Canadian leaders met at Canada House in London to discuss how deep research and commercialization at Waterloo are meeting challenges in the era of disruption.

Those bridges are increasingly important as a number of forces expose significant demographic and technological gaps. With the global population aging at an unprecedented rate, the world's economic centre shifting to the East, and the rapid pace of technological advancement reshaping all corners of our lives, universities need to dedicate themselves to innovation, interdisciplinary work, and expanding global connections, said Dominic Barton, who was named chancellor of the University of Waterloo in 2018. 

"Being able to do deep research has never been more important," said Barton, a global economic advisor. Universities are largely responsible for developing ideas and global talent, which will help traditional organizations adapt and respond to new realities to create for themselves a place at the table, he said.

Joanna Newman, president and secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, based in London, said that despite a world of “closing borders and minds,” universities have an essential role in creating graduates able to think critically and be globally minded citizens.

“Internationalization means that research is inherently international, and that partnerships matter now more than ever to scale up educational opportunities for all,” she said in an interview ahead of the event. “Through collaboration, we are better able to absolve pressing issues through applied science, work together in longer-term issues, and to solve some of the world’s most pressing global challenges.”

Newman cautioned, though, that universities must reform curriculum to best prepare students for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, bolster research support for early career researchers in emerging counties and increased access to education in those regions.

The University of Waterloo has a particular role to play in using its strengths to build partnerships with learning centres, business sectors and governments around the world, Newman said. The science and innovation that Waterloo does has a “local, national and international importance.”

And regardless of the nationalistic and protectionist policies that are emerging in some countries, the future is a global one, said Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor at Waterloo. Speaking to the Innovation Summit audience at the outset of the event, which featured Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland and leaders in next-generation computing and human-machine interaction, Hamdullahpur said that while governments and business will play important roles in this endeavour, the post-secondary education sector is best poised to play a leadership role.

It's important that in an "unbelievably unpredictable time in the world that we are connecting our students with the creativity and solutions to these issues."

“First and foremost, we don't want to just be a supplier of talent for our communities,” said Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor of Waterloo, as he opened the summit. “We have an ambition of being a part of building our nation – of being its chief architects.” As part of that effort, we must focus on connecting innovation with real-world problems, he said.  

Through Waterloo programs such as Velocity, a leading startup incubator, and co-operative learning, universities can put "competence and confidence together... amazing things happen."

The next event in the summit series heads back home to Waterloo in the fall where business, government and academic leaders will find out how technology will have an impact on the future of human health.