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In 2020, two stories dominated the news, both devastating and both with permanent global implications. And while the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the urgency of combatting climate change has not diminished. As we learn more about the complexities of both crises, it is indisputable that significant change will be driven by innovation, and that investment in science and technology is imperative as we address the greatest challenges of our time.

What we also know for sure is that the advancement of science not only takes increased investment in research and technology, but also investment in people. In Canada, we are seeing growing support for the use of technology to help drive sustainability and planetary health. A survey conducted by IBM Canada last October supported this observation: 61 per cent of Canadians think governments should do more to integrate technology into their environmental strategies; 72 per cent believe the tech industry’s research in driving sustainability and protecting the environment is important; and 73 per cent believe the advancement of clean technologies and artificial intelligence are instrumental in ensuring economic growth. More worrisome is that 56 per cent of Canadians believe the pandemic has stalled progress in the fight against climate change.

Now, more than ever, governments and corporations, including IBM, must model best practices with an all-encompassing commitment to environmental sustainability.

Can AI save the planet?

Gathering the information and evidence needed to understand and fight climate change is rooted in data science. In simple terms, data scientists translate a vast and often unfathomable amount of data into actionable insights that government and industry leaders can use to solve problems and help make science-based decisions. The rapid advancement of AI technology has accelerated the power of data science to analyze data even faster, which increases the speed of scientific discovery.

One way of looking at the root cause of the current climate crisis is to consider the skills and knowledge gaps of the past, which may have inhibited the development of more sustainable practices. Now, with the unprecedented power of technologies like AI, driven by scientific research, there is the real opportunity to not only mitigate the mistakes and possibly even repair the damage of the past, but to also reform our patterns – at the government, business and societal levels – to prevent any further devastation.

Science and technology are the tools we need to form and execute the decisions required to combat climate change. Just as important will be to ensure we have armed our work force with the proper skills that will enable us to help rectify the misdeeds of the past and create a healthier planet for the future.

The right people at the right time

To continue the advancement of science, we need the right technology but, most importantly, we need the right people. It seems obvious that encouraging science-based technical skills is critical to building a work force readied to answer the climate change battle cry, but so is fostering core or soft skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving and conflict resolution. We have seen this evolution of skills identification in the transformation of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to STEAM programs, which adds arts and humanities into the mix.

In a recent conversation with industry leaders on the future of work, I made five recommendations for Canadian CEOs to ensure they have a skilled work force in 2021. Among them were placing a priority on soft skills which will enable Canadians to prepare for jobs of the future. This idea of lifelong, continuous learning is critical to building a work force that is ready to solve complex problems such as climate change.

As part of this, we also need easier access to post-secondary skills such as what IBM offers through P-TECH, free of charge, helping to prepare high-school students for future technology-driven opportunities. A program launched a year ago by the Six Nations Polytechnic STEAM Academy of Brantford, Ont., in partnership with IBM Canada and Hamilton’s Mohawk College, is an example of the new trend toward this marriage of skills. In addition to technical proficiency, the academy also encourages other professional skills development, including collaboration, adaptability, and leadership. To truly fill the skills gap we are facing, we must come at it from all sides.

The potential of science to both prevent and solve some of the world’s greatest problems is immense, but its power is diminished without the human skills needed for its application. Because of this, greater investment in science, technology and people could be the deciding factor as to whether we can actually achieve the change we need.


Claude Guay, president of IBM Canada.Shan Qiao Photo, Shan Qiao/Handout

Claude Guay is the president of IBM Canada. He is the leadership lab columnist for January 2021.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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