Principal outlines key innovation questions

Posted on Wednesday, June 11, 2014

By McGill Reporter Staff

Universities have an important role to play in helping foster innovation and change, but they’ll have to address three crucial questions first, McGill Principal Suzanne Fortier told the Conférence de Montréal on Wednesday.

First, she said, what should a 21st century university experience look like?

“How do we create a rich learning environment for a new generation of students who are ready to be active participants in their own education?” Prof. Fortier asked. “These students are eager to start using in concrete ways what they learn in the classroom. They are ready to be connected both locally and globally.  How can we embrace the rapid changes, cultural and technological, in the university landscape, while strengthening our core essence?”

Second, she said, where will the greatest leaps in knowledge come from and how can we nurture an environment in which game-changing questions are asked?

“I believe that great research starts with curious minds, minds that are open to challenging the conventional wisdom,” Prof. Fortier said. “Our universities must continue to nurture this curiosity. It may serve to increase our knowledge of the universe in which we live or it may have concrete impact on our world. Industry has shown us over and over that the transformative discoveries of today are the seeds of the disruptive industries of tomorrow.”

And third, she said, what are the responsibilities of universities in a knowledge-based society and how can they engage and collaborate with other partners so that society achieves greater benefit from the intersection of their expertise and knowledge?

“We need to build dynamic zones of interaction and put in the time and the commitment from our organization’s senior leaders up front, so that we can be agile and quicker off the mark,” she said, citing the example of a partnership between Derek Gray’s team and McGill and forestry companies – a partnership that has resulted in the industrial production of cellulose nanocrystals, sometimes referred to as a “green wonder material” with many diverse applications from ingredients in sunscreen to bio composites for tooth repair and high-strength textiles.

These questions are crucial as we proceed into what some have called the Third Industrial Revolution, Prof. Fortier said. “To make that revolution a success, universities need to sign up to the team, and bring to it bright students, prepared for a lifetime of change by a well-rounded education, researchers who are asking the big questions and the willingness to commit to forming creative, forward-thinking organizations that can translate discovery into innovation.”

The Conférence de Montréal is an annual event devoted to the examination of economic globalization, particularly as it affects relations between the Americas and other continents. This year’s conference, at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel, runs until Thursday, July 12. Approximately 3,000 business leaders, senior members of government and academia attend the four-day event, which was kicked off Monday with a speech by federal Finance Minister (and McGill alumnus) Joe Oliver. Other notable speakers included Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard; former Harvard President and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Lawrence Summers; Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre; and Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund.

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