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”œWhat is our edge? What is our unique thing?”

Michael Morales  -  April 1, 2007  -  ,  

by Policy Options.
Originally published on Policy Options
April 1, 2007

Today, technology is advancing faster than ever. Books like Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, really pronounce that it's a fundamental change, that things are never going to be the same, and in so many ways, it's an improved world. That is, by bringing a high percentage of the world's population into the market economy, we not only get bigger markets, but we get more innovation. We get engineers all over the world coming up with great new ideas. We get people innovating on how products get built.

The scale of these activities is incredibly beneficial. Certainly, in industries like the software industry or the drug industry, the larger the market, the more risk can be taken in terms of doing new work. And when we combine that with breakthroughs in computer technology and advances in biology, we can see that it's a fantastic picture, that we will be changing the way that people learn, the way people buy, the way they entertain themselves, and the way they work quite dramatically.

You know, five years ago, when people thought of music, they still probably thought quite a bit about CDs. They probably thought about cameras with film. Today, obviously, those have become digital endeavors, the way you edit and share, hopefully legitimately, all of your songs and photos, that's done on the Internet.

We can already see that many other things are changing as well. The idea of TV: now, you'll be able to find the shows of interest, your kids' sports game, or the lecture on the obscure topic that you have an interest with. Because it will be delivered over the Internet, it will be very different. The way we think about phone calls, the way we think about finding the products we want to work with, it's all done on a digital basis.

Even industries that you would traditionally not associate with computer technology, like the car industry, are doing their design on a digital basis and sharing around the world what their parts requirements are, making models to look at what the safety capability is going to be, even letting customers custom order things, and the information goes all the way down to the factory level. So it's a very digital activity.

One of the largest investments of my foundation is actually in Canadian National Railway, and Sean Finn (Chair of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Senior Vice-President of CN) and I were talking about how even that business, digital signaling, digital planning has made a huge difference in terms of how they organize their activities. Digitization of your workplace and your lifestyle activities is proceeding at full speed.

Perhaps this is most pronounced when we look at the young people who are open-minded. This is a generation who grew up on video games and just takes it for granted that the world's information is out there on the Internet. In fact, traditional disseminators of news in newspaper form are seeing a decline in readership, yet the ability to get information and contribute information in this new world is actually somewhat better.

Now, all these changes are, in a sense, a challenge to governments. Every government has to wake up and think about this flat world and say, ”œHow do we make sure that as these improvements are taking place, that our citizenry is ready? What are some of the downsides that we can offset? What are some of the ways that we can fine-tune our investments?”

And it's not just government. I think a key theme of bringing together everybody we have here is that, in terms of the responsibility to think about what would have been traditionally government issues, business has a very substantial role to play. The business community needs to get involved in education. They need to think about how their skill sets or their need for certain types of workers can be expressed and how they can partner out and get involved in those activities.

Economies like the Canadian economy and the US economy in a certain sense are very high-cost economies. It's easy to look at China or India and say, ”œWell, isn't this a challenge in that they have workers whose salary levels are much lower?”

In fact, it's an opportunity, because the number of products, the amount of work and the quality of work can be increased. It's not fixed, and certainly we saw as we moved from the agricultural economy into the industrial economy, from a manufacturing, industrial economy into a service-based economy, that the opportunities worldwide were incredible and that we should all feel good that livelihoods, not only in the rich countries but around the world, are going to be increased.

But these countries, the US, Canada and others, have to say ”œWhat is our edge? What is the unique thing, and how do we renew the strengths that got us here in the first place?” And that often brings us back to the issue of investing in education. Jobs will increasingly require a college education. The categories that require high school are, to some degree, being eliminated by automation, and that's much more of a trend than those jobs moving overseas. Sometimes people don't see that.

If you think about manufacturing, if you think about repair, the quality of the products and the design of the products is simply changing what, say, for an automobile or consumer electronics would have been necessary. When we think about equal opportunities in our country, when we think about the negative effects of not having great opportunities for people, we really come back to education and what has to be done here.

Of course, there are differences between the US and Canada. I think those are very positive things, opportunities to learn. Canada certainly has some advantages. In terms of the costs of its medical system, although they are high, they are not as high. When it comes to private universities, the United States is very lucky that the amount of donations and the involvement and the strength of that system is, really, the envy of the world.

If you looked at the top universities around the world, North America includes a lot of great Canadian institutions, like the University of Waterloo. That's, actually, for many years, the place that Microsoft is hiring as many people as anywhere else in the world. In the top 100 institutions, probably something like 75 of them would be from North America.

Now, it's fair to say that there would be very few Asian institutions in that list today, but it's probably a great thing for the world that over the next 10 years, we can already see, given the investments that are being made, that will change, and it will be more balanced in terms of where the population is.

A strong example of that is Beijing University and Xinghua University, the two leading universities in China, which I think will break into the top 20 or even the top 10 sometime in the next decade. That's an interesting challenge. It's a competitive challenge.

Technology is also changing how we think about education. A motivated student can go out and find information on any topic. Leading universities are putting their lectures online, so those are accessible and no longer the unique element. There is certainly a need to experiment in education.

Microsoft around the world has now a dozen schools that are designed around technology so they get rid of textbooks and have a tablet-type device that kids can carry around. They can get not only their text materials but everything on the Internet. They can use a keyboard but also take their notes in ink or record the lecture, and work in a way that is very different from when we went to school.

One of those schools is in Toronto. It's the York Regional School District, and we're taking the very latest and see how that works. Very often what we learn is that the challenge isn't so much the students, but rather, how do we get the teachers ready? How do we get them to embrace this?

Because it's often intimidating to use technology in the classroom that you know that the students understand better than you do. Unless you've been given the summer to get ready and the right way to reach out and understand it, perhaps you'll show some resistance to that activity.

We look at trends. One of the interesting trends is that fewer students are going into math and science. That's true everywhere in the world, except in Asia. Here in North America, the drop is quite precipitous, and yet it's fascinating because actually, the job creation in those areas is quite strong. Clearly, the curriculum we're using, the way we're making it sound like an interesting field to go into, is discouraging a lot of people who would have great opportunities there.

It's particularly true for women and minorities. The numbers are declining overall, and the percentages of women and minorities are steady in some cases, but they are actually declining as a percentage of the declining overall percentage, so there is a lot that needs to be done there.

One belief is that we need to change curricula. We need to make the learning of math and science more in context so that you understand why these very abstract tools are of interest. Already, in some work my foundation does in the United States we've seen that when we have themed high schools, and no matter what the theme is, whether it is arts, construction, or science, that the engagement in math and science in those schools is much higher. In fact, in several of them, over twice the number of students graduating are in math and science as are coming out of typical high schools. I think that suggests that we really need to look at how that teach- ing is done.

This digital world is going to bring some exciting opportunities. Of course, it brings with it some challenges, including what some people have called the digital divide. How do you make sure everybody has access to this technology? There, one of the joint projects my foundation and Microsoft did was to work with libraries about four years ago in making sure that they could get computers connected up to the Internet. That's been very successful, so it's not just the kid who has got the Internet connection at home, but any kid who can get to the library can participate in these activities.

I think as we look at these activities, it raises this issue of social responsibility for businesses. Where can they bring their expertise to bear? Should they have an association with one of these high schools? This theming approach makes that even more possible. There is a lot of good examples where that has worked out.

For a software company, obviously we want our employees to see how we can contribute. We want them to get involved in schools and how new software can work there, and there are so many ways that technology can play a role. A system that was very innovative that was developed in Toronto and then adopted nationally in Canada tracks missing children. It is called the Child Exploitation Tracking System. It has been adopted by many countries around the world now, because it was made available for free to them. Canada and Microsoft went out to these governments: there is a huge benefit to having the system be common, since you're dealing with global problems. You have a common database, and you can track the information and see if somebody has found someone, no matter what country that is.

In some of these challenges, obviously, government plays the central role. Raising the level of investment in education is a government area, and that needs to be done in a number of ways. I understand that is a real theme, a lot of people are talking about it. Some of the trends on this are good, but the investment has to be at the high-school level so there is exposure to technology; to get the teachers to work in these new ways; to have school experimentation and allow these things to be tried out. And then we need funding at the university level so that the research activities can lead to the spin-offs in jobs and the spin-offs that come through innovation.

If we look at the two most dynamic industries, biotech and software, we see that the start-up creation is not associated with the large population centres, but rather is very strongly correlated with the locations of the larger research universities. In the United States, it is the Silicon Valley area around San José and San Francisco and the Boston area. The Seattle area gets a little bit of the benefit from Microsoft being there, but in turn, we've given back to the university there. We match, no matter what university our employees come from, we have a matching program that has actually worked out very well for them to give back in a very significant way.

A lot of these educational issues are very challenging, and yet, I don't think there is any getting around them. It is the countries that draw on the business community, we have to get the business community to think long-term about these issues, think about where in the education system you can drive the interest and innovation. Those are going to be the economies that seize all of this improvement, where the world as a whole will be getting richer faster than ever, but the disproportionate share of that, particularly for the richer countries, will only come where they've made these breakthroughs in education.

Excerpted from a presentation to the annual Can-Win conference, organized by the Conference Board of Canada, in Ottawa on February 20. 

This article first appeared on Policy Options and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


SOURCE: Policy Options
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