That success in the new fast-forward economy requires exploiting new information and communications technologies (ICT), generating new scientific and technical knowledge, and commercializing innovations is common knowledge. Equally important – and more challenging is to understand how our social and cultural institutions must also innovate and adapt.

Fortunately, Canada has significant research talent in the social sciences and humanities in universities across the country, a primary source for systematic knowledge on issues with relevance for businesses, governments and communities. The Initiative on the New Economy (INE) of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) is investing in 26 large multi-disciplinary research teams with promising results. Just sampling their work suggests its potential for delivering insights to help more wisely address complex and far-reaching issues.

Business and labour

Several teams are focusing on socioeconomic dimensions of ICT. For instance: how e-negotiation processes and systems can facilitate resolution of economic and other conflicts; strategies for Canadian businesses to increase web sales; and ways government could establish a level playing-field for providers of retailing and other services. What does the "New Economy" mean for the way financial markets function? What new tools do financial institutions need to better manage risk?

Interest in business performance issues recurs across several teams. Investigative and forensic accounting research is illuminating how reform of corporate governance standards and practices could prevent Enronlike failures. Another team is building new theoretical and practical knowledge of the linkages among industrial innovation, institutional frameworks, and firms' strategies and competencies.

Cross-national research around employment is deciphering ways to increase productivity and well-being for IT employees and to help Canada remain a key player in the global IT industry. Another team is finding out what helps unionized workers adapt to changing work structures and labour market changes such as deregulation and privatization. Other work correlating continuous/discontinuous paid work and patterns of engagement in formal/informal education and lifelong learning will assist career planning.

Skills and learning

Considerations about learning and skills development for the new economy include: how to strengthen early childhood education, improve schools and local communities, reduce the effects associated with poverty and create a society supportive of families; how to ensure that educational ICTs meet the needs of culturally diverse/marginalised groups (e.g. Miq'kmaq, African-Nova Scotians); educational strategies for knowledge building and maximizing intellectual development; how simulations and games using rich technologies improve learning; and how Canada could lead the world in this promising educational and commercial area.

People and communities

Leading-edge research is helping communities clarify many socio–economic issues that are proving central to meeting government and local goals for use of broadband technologies in Alberta. Other teams are answering questions about: factors shaping revitalisation capacities of small rural economies; how to boost the success of community-oriented ICT to aid sustainable social and economic development; whether emphasizing local self-sufficiency, decisionmaking and ownership helps disadvantaged communities increase economic opportunities.

Systematic analysis of barriers and facilitators for integrating ICT in different health delivery settings will help plan better care management systems. Innovations in technology design will increase access to higher education and employment for the over 12 per cent of Canadians with disabilities, promote their inclusion in other aspects of society and reduce the costs that exclusion creates. Alternative investment strategies for pension funds could yield important social as well as economic returns.

A cluster of projects examines the personal and social implications of an increasingly networked society. With the huge rise in personal data flowing over ICTs, especially across national borders, how can we protect our privacy and identity? What are the personal and societal implications of losing our anonymity?

These are important questions. Answers coming from these investments in human research will pay multiple dividends. With SSHRC's growing emphasis on knowledge mobilisation, these "riches" will be broadly shared with decision-makers and others seeking better knowledge.

Pamela Wiggin is Vice-President,
Knowledge Products and Mobilisation Social Science and Humanities
Research Council

Most economists would consider an industry that pumps millions of dollars a year into rural and urban centres a very good thing. What if it also built new facilities, attracted highly paid staff who spent their paycheques locally, and meant that many area residents increased their earning power?

In a nutshell, that's Canada's postsecondary education sector – our colleges and universities have a profound economic effect on all of the country's diverse regions. The impacts range from the direct, such as the money students and faculty spend every year and construction of new buildings, to the indirect, such as the increased earning power of graduates and the increased cultural richness and diversity of the communities.

Consider, for example, that the 24 colleges in Ontario alone have capital and human resource expenditures of $1.5 billion per year (equal to roughly 46,800 jobs). Or consider the country's universities, which are now a $20 billion national enterprise, making them larger than such sectors as pulp and paper or automotive manufacturing and just as big as the combined arts, entertainment, and recreation industries.

As we prepare for success in the knowledge-based economy, one of the other key contributions of postsecondary institutions is the teaching and training of graduates to meet workforce demands.

Colleges and universities are often the glue that holds a community together. Faculty, staff and students alike make their expertise widely available and build links with business, government, cultural groups and social agencies. Campus facilities are vital resources, with theatres, museums, public lectures, libraries and athletic facilities enriching their towns and cities. Colleges and institutes, in addition to serving their communities and passing on knowledge, also create it. They are key players in the field of applied research, product development and commercialization, working closely with industry and business to incubate new technologies and processes and, importantly, bring them to the marketplace. And this innovation is the basis for the technological and social progress crucial to Canada's future.

Applied research projects across Canada have included the development of a transfeeder compressed forage boiler system firm with 200 employees and $750 million in sales; a Molecular Cell Biology Lab for genomics, proteomics and diagnostic systems; Lamela pulp, a higher yield, environmentally friendly pulp product; and a Graphic Realtime Analysis Program for Engineering (GRAPE GBW32) which is now used by engineering firms worldwide.

From basic and applied research to commercialization, Canada's universities are hotbeds of innovation. Canadian university research has led to the decoding the genetic structure of the SARS virus and major advances in nanotechnology – the benefits of which serve our communities, Canada and the world. University research helps us better understand our diverse society, develop environmentally sustainable technologies, enhance our standard of living, build an informed and engaged citizenry, and boost our economy by creating new jobs, products and a highly qualified workforce.

Social and economic challenges of inadequate literacy are reflected in the work of the Canadian Language and Literacy Network, involving 30 universities across the country, providing policy-makers and practitioners with tools to improve Canadian children's literacy. Similarly, colleges and institutes are the primary providers of adult literacy programs in Canada.

New ideas and knowledge like those in the examples above – are key to keeping Canada competitive. Without them, our diverse and vibrant economy could quickly stagnate in the face of international competition and global access. Our challenge now is to continue the momentum. Canada's universities and colleges are ready and eager to take up the challenge.

Claire Morris is President of the Association of Colleges and Universities of Canada

Gerald Brown is President of the Association of Community Colleges of Canada

During the 1990s, Brazil and South Africa vied for the dubious distinction of AIDS capital of the world. At the start of the decade, Brazil had twice as many cases as South Africa, and a World Bank study predicted that Brazil would have off-the-chart infection rates for AIDS by the turn of the millennium.

Today, South Africa's HIV infection rate is 25% (1 in 4), while Brazil's is 0.6% (1 in 160). In 6 years, Brazil turned the tables on what seemed an intractable problem, and today the country is touted as a model for developing countries fighting AIDS.

How did this miraculous turn-around occur? What combination of government and independent agencies led the fight? What circumstances made the change possible?

With Boston facing among the highest murder rates in the United States, Reverend Jeff Brown decided that something had to be done to stop young men being murdered in his inner city parish. Confronting his own fear of streets belonging to gangs, Rev. Brown worked with a coalition (called the Ten Point coalition) to successfully lower the murder rate by an astonishing 60% in the Boston area.

The approach has led to the development of a ten-point program to fight youth homicide that is in demand by cities all over North America.

How did he do it? How was one person able to have such a powerful impact on a problem that has afflicted communities for decades? How did one man make such a difference?

There is a growing awareness, now being felt all over the world, that we need new ways to approach the compelling challenges societies face: intractable problems like hunger and poverty that seem impossible to resolve. By looking at real-life examples of social innovation – from a bank for small farmers in Bangladesh to anti-poverty initiatives in Kitchener, Ontario – from a fascinating new perspective, a group of researchers associated with McGill University and Dupont Canada has spent the past three years trying to answer some essential questions: how great social changes come about, and why some "hopeless" projects to improve society succeed where other worthy ones fail.

On the surface, stories like Brazil's success against AIDS and Jeffrey Brown's success in Boston seem like miracles, either the achievement great individuals or happy circumstances. But extraordinary leaders from Gandhi to Jeff Brown often see themselves as harnessing the forces around them. If some times and places are more ripe for change, then some actions and responses are more promising than others.

The trick – the systems trick – is to stop looking at the discrete elements, and start trying to understand the complex interactions among leaders, organizations, and circumstance; between brilliant individuals and what Shakespeare called the "tide in the affairs of men." The subtle rules of engagement between and among elements give systems a life of their own. Rather than focusing on discrete elements, as too much of our thinking does, complexity theory explores how the whole works.

From this new perspective the barriers to change start to look very different. Opportunities arise; doors that seemed locked suddenly open. If you know how it's done, you can do it again, better, next time.

The findings of the McGill-Dupont initiative will be published in 2005. These underline that social innovation is a process of bringing together the right people in the right way at the right time for the right reason. An understanding of its unfolding dynamics can help: by exploring the patterns of complex systems, by engaging power and flow, by preparing for both failure and success, this work intends to strengthen the deep will to create a better world with practical approaches. As the poet Wallace Stevens said, "how high that highest candle lights the dark".

Frances Westley is James McGill Professor of Strategy, McGill University • Michael Quinn Patton is affiliated with Union Institute & University • Eric Young is the President of E.Y.E • Brenda Zimmerman is Associate Professor of Strategy and Director of Health Industry Management Program, Schulich. School of Business, York University

Canada is rightly proud of its educational achievements – our 15 year olds came second only to Finland in reading; we rank among the leading industrial nations in levels of postsecondary education. Education matters in a knowledge society. The rate of increase in jobs requiring knowledge and managerial skills has outstripped that of other occupational categories although they still represent less than 20% of all occupations. We appear to have an adequate supply of the cognitive and communications skills required for new jobs; however, they are not evenly distributed. As a result, certain groups are likely to be further marginalized or excluded from the workforce altogether. The most vulnerable groups – the poor; persons of Aboriginal ancestry; persons whose native language is neither English nor French; persons in rural and isolated communities; and persons with certain disabling conditions – are also more likely to be poor readers and writers.

Almost half of the population have literacy levels that make it difficult for them to meet their own needs. Poor literacy skills diminish personal satisfaction and threaten Canada's social and economic health. A recent Statistics Canada analysis of evidence from fourteen countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that a 1% increase in adult literacy produces a permanent 1.5% increase in the gross domestic product. For Canada, that would result in a permanent increase of approximately $18 billion dollars per year!

Canadian business and labour organizations play an important role in motivating adults to increase their literacy levels. Workplace literacy programs that ensure workers meet health and safety standards, offer training in the use of more advanced methods and equipment, and provide financial support for the acquisition of literacy skills all help to promote literacy among adults. Canadian employers also help motivate adults to increase their literacy levels by rewarding literacy skills more than specific job qualifications, paying for them even when they are not strictly required for the job.

The importance of raising literacy levels among Canadians has not gone unnoticed by policy-makers. Numerous literacy initiatives have been introduced, but they lack coherence. Some are misdirected, others poorly implemented, and almost none are well evaluated. More significant are the missed opportunities for the development of complementary policies and programs that would substantially improve literacy in Canada. We know what policies, practices, and educational strategies will improve literacy levels. What we need is the public, political and professional determination to act on this knowledge.

Penny Milton is CEO of the Canadian Education Association.
For further information see CEA's policy brief, The Promise and Problem of Literacy for Canada:
An Agenda for Action at

We see their cybertwitching thumbs and weird spellings and ask ourselves, are they going to hell in a literacy hand basket? What kids are doing on their keyboards and cell phones is a mystery to many of us. Silent reading, movies, television – we have been here before confronted by new technologies we don't, at first, understand.

In some ways, our society is faced with a brand new challenge. The young are more confident and more fluent with computers than the adults who are teaching them. Perhaps we have been here before. Remember the story of Don Quixote? Everyone around the Don had grown up reading aloud. Now here he was, sitting in his study all by himself not even moving his lips. Even worse, books that were cheap and plentiful enough surrounded him. Folk could stay inside for months and never stop reading. Was this a cause for celebration at Quixote family dinners? Hardly. The gossip that flew everywhere was that he had dried up his brains completely.

Today, information is not in short supply; it's our attention that is finite. Some commentators say we live in an attention economy rather than a knowledge age. How do people pay attention in a digital world that creates dynamic connections between text, pictures and sound? Look at the web version of the front page of a newspaper. How do you decide what to look at first? What entices you to click on "more" to get the details of one story and not another? Did you go to sound or video clips? And every time you clicked somewhere, how did you continue to know where you were?

Adults are used to wringing their hands over kids' short attention spans – but maybe we should ask what is so enticing about cyberspace that kids come back for more. Interactivity – kids like to connect. Check their fan fiction sites. Following episodes of favourite shows or books, they write stories of their own, hundreds of them, for the world to read. They respond to one another's pieces, editing and encouraging each other as budding authors.

Find out about blogs, sites people create to post their opinions, get feedback from others, and link to other sites they want to promote. They are creating a public for their ideas, not just an audience, bypassing "official" routes to publication. They want others to gather around compelling points of view – and they want them to come back. They design and post "zines" (electronic magazines) creating spaces for new voices, images and ideas. Ironically, all this is happening even as their teachers are trying to figure out how to motivate kids to write in schools.
Like satirists in the old days, kids are learning how to poke holes in the pretensions of the dominant culture, turning them on their heads. A blog created by a Calgary teen drew over 300,000 hits in a three-week period during the recent federal election. And yet the received wisdom is that kids don't care about politics. Maybe they just don't care in the old ways.

Kids create and play in simulated worlds. Their cell phones are portals to everywhere. MSN is the new homework study hall. Kids expect everything to plug into everything else so they can connect to others, so they can do things, so they can make things happen.

Are there things to worry about – cyber bullying, privacy invasion, violent, sexist and mindless content? You bet. But let's make sure we also look below these surfaces to understand how new media has transformed the world of our kids forever.

What could possibly compel 80 people from very different walks of life from all parts of Canada to gather in Vancouver in the middle of winter?

They were Canadians – young and older; female and male; Aboriginal and visible minority; policy makers (elected and nonelected); business leaders; academics; notfor-profit volunteers; public servants; teachers and students; artists and plumbers; poor and rich – it's hard to imagine a more diverse group agreeing to spend two days together. They were gathered to discuss the question, "What is an educated Canadian?"

CEA, in formulating this question had in mind an open and unconstrained look at one of the most fundamental human questions – how do we help our children, each other and ourselves to lead better, more worthwhile lives? The answers to this question cannot be addressed without the participation of others, nor can the meaning of "worthwhile lives" be determined for others. The question of what it means to be educated in a democracy extends no preferential status or privilege to any individual or group. Put this way, the meaning of education is too important to be left in the hands of some "stakeholder" group or groups to define and enact. In Canada everyone has a legitimate interest in defining and pursuing education, that is, refining our understandings about what it means to live good lives and continually striving to lead better lives.

The "good and worthwhile life" dialogue began with the request for everyone to think of someone they considered "educated," followed by a time of everyone's sharing their responses within a small group. Mostly the "educated" people chosen were family members, friends and close acquaintances – for example, one group of six identified two grandmothers, a husband, a father, a son and a sister. It became increasingly clear, as all groups reported, that our concepts of education, while differing in some very real senses, had some striking and often unexpected similarities. Very little mention was made of formal schooling. The conversation was dominated by descriptors like respectful, courageous, empathetic, critical, knowledgeable, open and humble as well as the dawning realization that none of these people would consider themselves as educated. Probably the most used word was wise. What was astounding to some was how common our understandings about what it meant to be educated were – derived as they were from personal and individual experiences and perspectives. What was notably reassuring and affirming about this exercise was the enthusiasm and thoughtfulness that accompanied it and the enjoyment that seemed to permeate it.

We were encouraged not only by the efforts to achieve common ground upon which we could all stand, but also by common language and vocabulary that seemed to rise effortlessly from the groups. There was no talk of the privilege, advantage or entitlement so often associated with schooling. There was no talk of exclusion or exclusivity. Conversely, there was a great deal of discussion about acceptance, inclusivity, private obligation and public responsibility. Telling our stories had created a public space where our personal biases and differences, our institutional affiliations and loyalties, and our private fears and societal anxieties were somewhat set aside to consider what made us the same, what inextricably bound each of us to others. Education was not only preparing to live the worthwhile life individually and collectively, the good life was educational and educative in our most complete understandings of the concept.

This almost euphoric moment either could not be sustained or was sidetracked as we continued to delve deeper into the focal question of what it meant to be an educated Canadian. In today's world it is difficult to stick with the task of constantly trying to get it right - the path is not clear and the ends are elusive.

We began to talk about education from our professional standpoint as CEOs, union members, educators and advocates, that is, to talk from what we were rather than who we were. It seemed so natural, so familiar, so comfortable, so right and, indeed it was because, to some extent, our world is arranged and our relationships are determined by our institutional roles. Perhaps we needed to spend more time reminding ourselves of the threats to democratic spaces posed by our institutional identities. For example, systems reinforce hierarchy, power differentials and regulatory arrangements that predetermine people's places, create barriers that emphasize differences and establish distance between people. Too often contemporary systems focus on winners and losers; on credit and blame as if credit is in limited supply; on advantage and privilege as if entitlement accrues naturally or deservedly to some and not to others. When we believe these arrangements are necessary, practical and inevitable, we stifle the human imagination and thwart human possibility.

Where might we have gone if our conversations had continued as they began? We will never know, but in the many groups we have worked with on the question of the educated person, several general, albeit abstract, perspectives have been achieved:

  1. as Canadians we are very fortunate to live in a country where we can engage freely and without fear or overt prejudice in our own affairs and in the affairs of our communities, our country and even beyond;

  2. education is first and foremost about preparing our children for democratic participation and about assisting each other in providing opportunities and support for democratic participation;

  3. we owe it to ourselves, our communities, and our world to prepare our children for human freedom and our responsibility for achievement of that human ideal is commensurate with our individual and collective circumstances and,

  4. in a global context, all democratic countries and all peoples in democratic countries are somewhat implicated in all that is meaningful, worthwhile and useful in the world, as well as for everything that is not.

Once common ground on the above has been achieved, those involved in the process start considering what these human perspectives might look like in institutional policy and practice, sometimes to the point of questioning the very purposes and/or existence of the institutional arrangements. The capacity to consider these arrangements with honesty and integrity – asking whether they contribute to a worthwhile life for individuals with a view to a worthwhile lives for all – seems like an essential next step.

David Coulter, Professor of Education, University of British Columbia facilitated the dialogue; John Wiens, Dean Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba was a participant.

Canada spends more than $121 billion a year health care, most of which goes to providing medical care and treatment to people who are sick. Rising rates of obesity in children and an aging population will require even greater investments in treatment over the next 50 years. Health care alone will not significantly improve the health of the Canadian population as a whole. We need action to address the factors that compromise our health in the first place, one of which is poor literacy.

According to the last national literacy survey in Canada, almost half of Canadians have some difficulty reading materials that they encounter in their everyday lives. If the latest survey to be released shortly, shows similar levels of reading ability we will continue to have concern not only about the economic impact of low literacy in Canada, but about its impact on health.

People with poor literacy are more likely to have difficulty finding and understanding health information, to experience more health problems, to make more mistakes with medications and to have more workplace accidents than people with higher literacy. They are likely to feel more stress, be more vulnerable when things go wrong, have unhealthy habits such as smoking and not getting enough exercise, make more visits to the hospital and to stay there longer. These direct and indirect effects of low literacy make it a major contributor to the ill health of Canadians as individuals and as a population.

Unfortunately, Canada has not kept pace with other countries in research on literacy and health. We have implemented some innovative programs such as the National Literacy and Health Program with very little evaluation of the impacts of such initiatives on the health of the people they are designed to serve. Little research has been done to understand the relationships between literacy and other determinants of health or on how literacy affects health within different cultural groups or over the life cycle. Finally, we have very little if any, research on the cost implications of the impact of low literacy on health or on the potential cost savings from addressing this problem seriously.

Fortunately, recent efforts to redress this gap in our knowledge have begun, for example, a project to develop a national program of research on literacy and health with the support of funding by SSHRC. So far, the project has identified key questions to be studied and stimulated the interest of other research funding agencies in supporting projects in this field. Several projects are underway to study the impacts of literacy and health literacy on the health of Canadians and to evaluate some of the programs that currently exist in Canada. This research will lead to better ideas about how to promote the health of Canadians by improving their general literacy and their health literacy. In return we can look forward to both social and economic benefits through increases in productivity and decreases in use of expensive health services.

Irving Rootman is Professor, University of Victoria and Distinguished Scholar, Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research
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