Why Davos matters for millennials

Published on: January 18, 2017   Montreal Gazette

Why Davos matters for millennials
By Suzanne Fortier

Globalization, new technologies and a bewildering pace of change have exponentially increased the complexity of our world. We currently have intractable problems, such as climate change, income inequality, and food security.

The students on our university campuses will be on the front lines of dealing with these challenges. Universities need to accelerate our ongoing efforts to provide them with a rich learning environment that will prepare them to deal with complexity and rapid change.  This deepened education presents students with problems that draw on multiple disciplines while also grounding them in the fundamentals. It fosters creativity, gives students opportunities to unleash their inner entrepreneur, and allows them to explore deep dives into knowledge.  One crucial element to prepare our future leaders for complex problems and ever-changing careers is to expose students to learning opportunities outside the university – through field studies, internships and hands-on innovation – in partnership with the private and public sectors.

I have the good fortune again this year to be one of the leaders at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos discussing these “wicked problems”. Our increasing realization that these problems do not exist in silos but are part of interwoven systems dramatically increases the difficulty, both of understanding them and of finding solutions. For example, drought caused by rising global temperatures hits the poor hardest, which translates into less food, more health problems and greater inequality. Yet a solution to one problem may ripple out to have unintentional and negative impacts in other areas. Connections, in effect, create more complexity.

How to shape a sustainable world
Three of McGill’s passionate professors have also been invited to Davos to discuss how to shape a sustainable world. Graham Macdonald will talk about our vast global food system – the production, transportation and consumption of food. The choices we make about what we eat contribute affect this system every day, but Professor Macdonald demonstrated that eating sustainably is more nuanced than simply choosing local food over global food.

Elena Bennett focuses on the “Bright Spots” – the success stories hidden in the often gloomy web of information about our environment. She is using data analytics tools to tease out the common features of sustainable projects that work in order to rethink the human-environment relationship. The third professor, Andrew Gonzalez, researches ecosystems in the greater Montreal. He has found that it is not enough to create in isolation the robust green spaces that counteract urban heat islands, help control floods, filter our air, provide food and provide spaces for reflection and relaxation. Instead, the health of these green spaces, and the benefits they bring us, depend on how well these ecosystems connect and interact. An isolated ecosystem is an unhealthy ecosystem.

Understanding these interactions is no easy task. Designing interventions that have a positive impact on wildlife, water, plants and people across multiple ecosystems around Montreal is even more challenging. Considering the ripple effect out to other systems and other areas is daunting.

Team effort
The research presented at Davos provides just a few examples of the elaborate relationships and interconnected systems involved in our world’s problems. As a university leader, I am constantly thinking about how we can best prepare students to deal with a world that will not get any simpler. How can a single person get his or her head around this level of complexity?

The answer is that a single individual cannot. Just as the McGill research presented at Davos demonstrates that ecosystems must be connected to be healthy, individuals and sectors will have to connect and collaborate to find solutions to create a healthy, equitable world.

We certainly are not starting from scratch. But this new and complex world demands that we all raise our game. Equipping our young people for the future, finding solutions to unthinkably complex problems will require an unprecedented level of collaboration and partnership across all sectors in our society and across the world.

Suzanne Fortier is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University

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