Global Futures in Focus with Dominic Barton

Economic Futures - Global Futures in Focus with Dominic Barton

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Episode description

Shortages in skilled labour, disruptions to supply chains, geopolitical and digital threats have shown us the vulnerabilities and risks inherent in our economy. And many economies around the world are experiencing unprecedented growth, while others are bracing for a recession. In this episode, Dominic Barton discusses the intersections of societal and technological changes impacting our local and global economies.

We hear from students and alum starting out their careers as well as established business leaders including Dave McKay, president and CEO of RBC, and Brigette Lau, co-founder of Firework Ventures.

Featured in order of appearance:

Dr. Vivek Goel
Dave McKay
Rachel Almaw
Jason Amri
Sefunmi Osinaike
Dr. Norah McRae
Brigette Lau
Dr. David Drewery
Dr. Joel Blit

Episode transcript

Dave McKay: Really, it has never been more important as leaders to help society and teams get through an unbelievably anxious, disruptive, scary time right now.

Dominic Barton: We're living in a time of phenomenal change. We've seen over the past decade or so that a variety of themes such as technological innovations, the shift in economic power from the west to the east, climate change, a broadly aging population and a new geopolitical environment are transforming our world and propelling us into an unknown future. Not only are these forces disrupting our world, but they are intensifying at levels that are hard to fathom.

Multiple voices: The unemployment rate fell slightly last month. A new report says the average asking price for a rental unit in Canada... The numberof businesses declaring insolvency doubled over the past year. Artificial intelligence could bring more transition in the economy and our places…

Dominic Barton: The economic forces at play are resulting in one of the most transformative and disruptive eras in hundreds of years. As a result, new jobs and innovations are popping up everywhere. The lifespan of the biggest businesses in the world has dwindled from 90 years to 15 years as the rate of change has intensified. In 1935, for example, the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company was 90 years. And by 2022 is estimated to have been15 years. It took 2000 years for the centre of the global economy to move from east to the west. But the shift back from the west to the east is happening in less than 100 years at an incredible scale and speed. This breathtaking speed of change is driven by a new middle class that has been growing in the east. This has been driven by urbanization, and the scale of this change has never been seen before. These forces are resulting in an economic future that requires new ways of doing things. It also requires that we consider how we create equitable and resilient economies. 

This is Global Futures in Focus from the University of Waterloo. I'm Dominic Barton.

Dominic Barton: This series, Global Futures in Focus, examines the intersection of the global futures, that space where solutions can be uncovered to make the world a better place for all. Like most of the global futures, the economic futures are not singular in nature. To approach these futures, we need to consider societal, sustainable, health and technological futures. The intersection of these futures is the launching pad for considering how to address the many variables that impact our global economies. Labour shortages, disruptions to supply chains, geopolitical and digital threats have shown us the vulnerabilities and risks inherent in our economies. University of Waterloo President Vivek Goel says the University’s strengths can be leveraged to pave a path to a prosperous economic future—a future that includes social entrepreneurship and innovation, targeting the public good, a future that supports lifelong learning and skilling that keeps pace with technology and an ever-changing world. I've seen how Waterloo has embraced not only co-operative and experiential learning, but integrated these principles across disciplines, providing students with a much more holistic view of the world. It's a viewpoint that positions Waterloo’s graduates for success, and perhaps most important, provides them with a foundation to be leaders and change makers. 

Dr. Vivek Goel: We have a third of our undergraduate students enrolled in business -related programs, but many of them are enrolled in programs that combine a particular discipline or area of study with business education. Science and business, environment and business, aviation and business, right. We can do business education in a very different way than a place with a traditional business school model. How do we approach scholarship in that similar way of bringing people together from different disciplines looking at these key issues of productivity, economic growth and develop a thought-leadership position for the institution in these areas.

Dominic Barton: Many economies around the world are experiencing unprecedented growth, while others are bracing for a recession. Canada faces serious challenges with productivity growth, and without a significant change in course, Canada will face significant challenges ahead. President Goel recently sat down with Waterloo alum and Royal Bank of Canada president and CEO, Dave McKay, to discuss how Canada can leverage its strengths to meet an uncertain future. Here's part of the discussion that took place at the WatSPEED Tech Horizons Executive Forum.

Dave McKay: One of the solutions is business has to lead, educational institutions have to lead with the core innovation and research. We have to fund new ideas, and we're not bad at it, we're pretty good at funding new ideas and innovating as an economy. We've got amazing universities and colleges in this country. We've got amazing talent, we import great talent, we come up with ideas, we see those ideas pretty well. We don't grow them. 

Dominic Barton: A lot of organizations see the value of thinking outside the box. Some of these organizations have gone so far as removing all hierarchy. I recently visited a UK organization, the Crick Institute, that is flat, with no departments, and mashing very different groups together to ensure collision of ideas and no silos. Perhaps learning from his time as a co-op student at Waterloo, Dave and Royal Bank of Canada have a program called Amplify, which brings in 1,000 co-op students each summer to work on six to eight mega projects, and present on the tough challenges Royal Bank management is struggling with. Many of these students have no experience in banking, and as a result, they often bring fresh ideas for consideration. 

Dave McKay: So that is an example of the unbelievable potential in our youth. Coming out of I think one of the world's greatest education systems, and one of the core assets of Canada is the amazing, amazing education institutions that we have and the quality of people that we produce, and the quality of students that we attract globally is one of the best things about Canada.

Dominic Barton: Students, like Rachel Almaw, who completed her undergrad degree in Health Studies. Her undergraduate thesis looked at the experience of osteoarthritis among Black and white Canadians. In 2022, she was selected as the Faculty of Health’s co-op student of the year. Now pursuing a master's, Rachel is examining the role of race, health, gerontology—the study of old age— and the social determinants of health. She says she discovered an affinity for research through three co-op terms with Waterloo’s Mobilized Clinical Biomechanics Research Lab. That experience has inspired her to ask tough questions and seek out solutions. 

Rachel Almaw: Working with the lab and doing research kind of developed this repertoire of skills that I had kind of neglected prior to. It helped me become more confident in myself. It helped me, you know, I guess, figure out who I am, and where I thrived and where I wanted to be. But prior to then, I was very much on the ‘I'm going to go to med school, I'm gonna go straight to there after undergrad.’ But this kind of stopped me in my tracks and was like, ‘actually, maybe research is something you can pursue before then.’ I found that I was becoming more confident in myself in that it wasn't just myself who was noticing the work that I was doing. On a large scale, it is important, it's very rewarding, and it kind of goes back to that idea that the work that I'm doing is important and it's just really beautiful to have it recognized on such a great scale at a school that is known for co-op.

Dominic Barton: The economy of the future requires fresh perspectives and new ideas because it is being pushed by technological advancements. This is true across all sectors, from computing power, the connectedness of things and data's ubiquity, technology is completely transforming everything. It has also ramped up the speed of everything. Recent research from management consulting firm McKinsey & Company shows that generative AI could enable automation of up to 70 per cent of business activities across almost all occupations by 2030. No sector is immune, and every business needs to think of themselves as a technology company. 

 I look at changemakers like undergraduate student Jason Amri, who are taking this idea to heart. Jason is a Schulich leader, the recipient of a prestigious scholarship that is given to 100 Canadian high school graduates each year. These students are entrepreneurial-minded graduates enrolling in science, technology, engineering or math at university. Jason is a Waterloo co-op student currently on a work term in Hong Kong. We asked him to describe the value he's gaining from co-op, and how he leverages his background in tech in a business setting.

Jason Amri: Most of my roles have been around the intersection of technology and strategy. I study computer science and business, and most of my co-op roles have been around that intersection. I've worked in tech consulting, I've worked with startups on their strategy, worked in project management, as well as more typical like strategy and management consulting roles. With each experience, I got to know a little bit more about the things I loved I liked and maybe didn't like about a particular role, and I kind of built on that bit by bit to shape my future co-ops. I think that's one of the big advantages of the co-op program. I not only picked up real world skills, but I got to really understand what I'm passionate about doing as a career.

Dominic Barton: Successful businesses today often launch with a digital-first strategy. As technology evolves, businesses will require talent that can evolve alongside it, and challenge the status quo. Sefunmi Osinaike graduated in 2017 with a degree in electrical engineering. Along with earth science alum Helen Huang, they founded the global platform Co.Lab, to provide people with no background in tech, and with a space for learning and re-skilling for the digital economy. Co.Lab boasts a 95 per cent completion rate and has helped people in 35 countries switch careers and land roles at Apple, Google Amazon and more. As a student in the enterprise co-op program, Waterloo option that support students in launching their own startup, Sefunmi merged his passion for building things with his entrepreneurial acumen. Last year, he and Helen were named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list.

Sefunmi Osinaike: It was Waterloo or bust. So every single thing that I did, you know, back home was to like, ‘’I want to make sure I find my way to Waterloo because I wanted to go through co-op program, which ended up being one of the most valuable things and valuable experiences. So, if not for the co-op program I don't think I would have come to Canada because the other path was to go to the UK. So i if not for that E co-op term, I don't think I would have had that confidence, or that skill, or even the interviewers like seeing that, ‘wow you need initiative to solve a problem,’ I don't think like it would have just happened the way it did. So I'm very grateful for the fact that Waterloo even let me just do that, you know. They gave me that safe space and that structure that, ‘OK, the only thing I'm going to lose is I don't get to make money, and I don't get to make money because my product isn't making money,’ because if my product was making money, I could have paid myself. Because you get credit for it, you get support, they gave me an office space. So, I had all the things that I needed. So, it was a very great experience honestly, like top-five life experiences I've ever had like doing an E co-op.

 Dominic Barton: Preparing the workforce of tomorrow is pivotal to Canada's role in the future of global economy. When I was at McKinsey, it was a common theme for our company and our clients: how can we ensure our existing and future workers thrive? Work-ready graduates and ongoing upskilling are some key areas of focus when we think about the future of work. During my time with the University of Waterloo, I've been inspired by its co-op students and their experiences. Many chose Waterloo because of the co-op program knowing they'd be graduating with real-world experience. Cooperative education was a new concept in Canada at Waterloo founding and has since become a guiding value for the institution. No other research-intensive university in the world does co-op at the same scale and impact as Waterloo. The University continues to partner with employers across Canada and around the world to create opportunities that equip students to become changemakers and leaders. The program has more than 25,000 active students enrolled in more than 120 accredited co-op programs across the University's six faculties. Deloitte tagged the economic impact of the program at about $600 million to Canada's GDP in 2018. And perhaps most importantly, 96 per cent of employed co-op graduates find a job related to the skills gained at Waterloo within six months of graduation. Dr. Norah McCrae is Waterloo's associate provost, co-operative and experiential education.

Dr. Norah McRae: What’s facing the Canadian economy, as we well know, are the challenges of upskilling and reskilling. Not only emerging talent, as we see in our students, but in employees as digital transformation takes over all sectors and all industries. So, I think one of the key takeaways is just that. Digital is everywhere, and the more that someone has the capability to demonstrate that they can learn and adapt to digital environments is going to be absolutely critical to anyone's success regardless of what they are studying and where they end up. It's not about learning software X or software Y, it really is about learning how to apply those capabilities or those technologies in a range of different settings and transfer that into other settings, too.

Dominic Barton: Waterloo alum Bridget Lau is another great example of how co-op prepares the leaders of tomorrow. She completed an undergraduate degree in computer engineering in 1999. Drawn to Waterloo by its co-op program, and the opportunity it provided, she says her co-op experiences opened her eyes to what's possible. Today, she's co-founder and partner at Firework Ventures, a firm that invests in startups focused on the human-centred future of work.

Brigette Lau: We see a lot of key trends that's happening between, you know, the workforce and technology. So, at Firework we define the future of work as technology that's creating access and opportunity, driving economic and social mobility with work at the centre. And we know this is an enormous and growing market opportunity, and we've actually sized this at $4 trillion. So automation is eliminating work. The amount of time spent on work by humans and machines is expected to be equal by 2025. But it's also creating space for humans, us, you know, workers to refocus on higher-value work. You know, the top skills demanded by employers include critical thinking, problem solving, resilience, flexibility, which really requires significant reskilling and upskilling for more than a billion people by 2030.

Dominic Barton: Running alongside the co-op program at Waterloo is the Work-Learn Institute. This institute is a wonderful example of how the University of Waterloo can connect students and researchers with what's happening in the world and then share that knowledge. It takes the data and experiences of co-op students and employers to uncover insights based on that information. Its findings are an incredible resource to better understand the evolving future of work. Dr. David Drewery is a Waterloo alum, and the associate director of the Work-Learn Institute. We asked him about the skills needed for tomorrow's workforce. 

Dr. David Drewery: We know for sure that AI is going to change jobs in the future because it already is. There's already lots of evidence that AI is affecting jobs today. So, we can only expect that it's going to continue to do that. And I know that that is probably a really scary thing for young people who are planning their careers because there's lots of discussion in the media about how AI is going to replace people, and that can be a really scary reality. But I don't actually know that's all that accurate. I think instead, young people need to consider ways in which they can work with AI. Rather than be afraid of AI they need to think about careers that will be complemented by AI and enhanced and supported by it.

Dominic Barton: Technology and automation are innovating at unheralded rates. By the end of this decade, at least 10 per cent of the global workforce will have a new job as a result of technology. I'm not a luddite: I believe there is plenty of upside for technology and automation. There will be many new jobs available to the workforce, but they will require training or reskilling. Dr. Joel Blit is a professor in the Department of Economics, he studies the impact of new technologies on the economy. 

Dr. Joel Blit: So, AI is what economists would call a general-purpose technology. Basically, what it means is that it's going to be a disruptive technology. It's not a technology that's going to make incremental change. It's going to radically change everything. It's going to transform everything, right? And so, it's in the same vein as previous disruptive or general-purpose technologies, like the steam engine, like electricity, like computers. And so, it's an opportunity to fundamentally rethink everything we're doing to do it better, faster, more efficiently, etc. And so, for Canada in particular, where we face this existential threat because of our slow performance and innovation, productivity, growth, it is an opportunity to change the trajectory. And it's an opportunity that only comes once every 20, 30 40, 50 years. Once in a generation, maybe even once in a lifetime. So, we need to take it, we need to take this opportunity and embrace it and really start to do things differently.

Dominic Barton: We are living in a disruptive and transformative era. Where economies are shifting, admits growth like we've never seen before. It's all happening in the world confronting geopolitical tensions, pandemics and other challenges that create a sense of fragility despite this growth. There is a yearning for a new societal deal. Technological innovations are an increasing returns to scale gain, but as a result, fewer people often benefit as you go through it. Leaders need to ensure that no one is left behind. If they're not careful, we could have a revolution on our hands. 

While leaders need to take risks, those risks also need to be calculated. Many leaders have told me over the years that it is their failures that lead them to success. Sometimes there were missteps or stumbles, but pulling themselves up again and dusting off is what it took for a breakthrough. 

In this episode, we heard from Waterloo alum Dave McKay about the importance of challenging orthodoxies across sectors. We learned how co-operative and work-integrated learning is preparing the workforce for the future. And we heard from Waterloo students and alumni about their aspirations for what's next. 

This series, Global Futures in Focus, examines the intersection of the global futures, that space where solutions can be uncovered, to make the world a better place for all. 

Thank you for listening to the economic futures episode of Global Futures in Focus. I encourage you to listen to our other global futures episodes, where we focus on the global transformations cutting across sustainability, society, health and technology. I hope they inspire you to make a difference in your own unique and perhaps unconventional way. I'm Dominic Barton.