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Opinion The biggest threat to Canada’s universities? The empathy gap

Sara Diamond is president and vice-chancellor at OCAD University.

University education should foster empathy – an essential human capacity needed for effective management and societal well-being. Empathy can inspire communities of action and emphasize diversity of experience and choice, rather than underscore and fuel differences. For example, co-designed transit planning could demonstrate long-term impacts of decisions on specific communities, economic growth, affordability and access to amenities, and prompt viable decisions. And our 21st-century challenges, as profound as climate change, require the ability to hold difficult conversations successfully.

Indigenous approaches to knowledge could create clarity as we develop applications for emerging technologies. These are founded on empathy and draw from understanding of the relationships between acts and people, the need for self-reflection, and protocols that respect all subjects and places. Universities have significant opportunities to collaborate with Indigenous researchers, businesses, not-for-profit leaders and creators to build better empathetic learning.

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The “fourth industrial revolution” – technological advances that blend computational, biological and physical sciences – requires empathy, too. It challenges the boundaries between what we have historically understood as human and machine. Examples include the Internet of Things, intelligent skin-like textiles, rapid prototyping of organs, immersive eye-tracking virtual reality and deep-learning algorithms modelled on humanlike behaviours.

These building blocks of a new economy are most valuable in application. We should apply empathy when we make choices about the things that we build. We should calculate and mediate environmental, cultural and social impacts. The empathy economy is the human interface to the fourth industrial revolution.

Let’s imagine the future: The sharing economy, underwritten by blockchain technology, will expand to include cooperatives that serve and transform marginalized populations. Small-batch production, bespoke design and artmaking will accelerate with rapid prototyping and help to make neighbourhood economies viable. The Canadian marijuana industry will compete globally with high-quality design products, entertainment experiences and medical solutions. Old economies, such as lumber, will revitalize through reinvention, such as nail-laminated timber panels, which are being coupled with smart urban planning; this keeps construction workers employed while supplying sustainable buildings and livable neighbourhoods.

Design-savvy companies show significantly higher returns on investment because they are empathetic, identifying human needs and creating solutions. At OCAD University, we support large industry in developing and applying empathetic design thinking. In fact, among the programs at OCAD’s Imagination Catalyst, an entrepreneurship hub, are "Design 4,” which places emerging designers inside firms; “Founders by Design,” which brings design training to the startup ecosystem; and design mentorships, where mature design professionals mentor emerging companies.

Two design-centric companies that have emerged are Wondeur AI, which deploys artificial intelligence and beautiful design to establish the comparative value for works sold on the global art market, enabling the widespread acquisition of art; and Sherpa, which takes the anxiety out of travel by providing automated visa services for travellers, combining design, machine learning and blockchain tech. For Canada to compete we must intensify the coalition of faculty, students, industry, networked incubators and scale-ups. We need to integrate students within firms and not-for-profits throughout their educational journey. We need to emphasize the values associated with empathy and quality of life as we strengthen these connections.

Universities must continue to innovate in educational delivery methods. Governments tie universities to standard degrees with a focus on time-to-completion, rather than continuous learning. But learning occurs best through theoretical and real-world experience that challenges the imagination. Stacking micro-credentials, such as attending workshops, allows diverse learners to earn degrees over time and the employed to update their human and technical skills in a time of rapid change.

While responding to industry needs, we must resist the idea that universities must simply train individuals for jobs that directly correlate with their undergraduate or graduate degrees. Translational skills are equally essential. Artists have always been out-of-the-box inventors of technologies and new social systems. Take, for example, TransPod and its carbon-neutral tube system for ultra-high-speed transportation that reduces friction found on trains, automobiles and jets. Ryan Janzen is the inventor and co-founder of TransPod. He was educated at the University of Toronto as a composer of orchestral music.

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Consortium approaches that engage industry, universities, colleges and other institutions can effectively scale up and generalize inventions that serve the empathy economy. For example, Canada’s Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation is an international and nationwide initiative dedicated to improving brain health and support for those with illnesses such as dementia.

Universities must continue to break down disciplinary boundaries between human knowledge, creative fields and sciences. Inventors need to understand language, history, law, culture and religion to integrate human needs and actions, and creative people need fluency with science.

We should integrate design capabilities across all university curricula. We can fuel new perspectives by hiring diverse and Indigenous faculty and leaders who bring lived experiences, new questions and approaches that can amplify institutional relevance. Universities and our partners must conspire to produce the fearless leaders who can bridge the empathy gaps of yet unknown future economies, cultures and societies to create a humane, sustainable and competitive future.

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