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Neil Turok, director of Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, has a message for business school students: Be yourself, play to your strengths.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

One of the criticisms levelled at Canada's business climate is that it isn't innovative enough. So we put this question to four acknowledged thought leaders: 'If you were a guest professor at a business school, how would you teach creative thinking to the students?'

Teach them how to risk-think

Ron Dembo

Founder and chief executive officer of Zerofootprint, a Toronto- and New York-based software company devoted to reducing technology's environmental impact through data management, analytics and communication. Previously, he founded the enterprise risk-management software company Algorithmics.

One of the things we don't teach people is how to think about extreme uncertainty, and innovation is all about dealing with extreme uncertainty. I'd focus on teaching risk-thinking to students, and how to separate out the part of a problem that is known from what's not known.

If I were building another Shoppers Drug Mart, for example, it's pretty straightforward: I go and look at 437 Shoppers Drug Marts – maybe I'll slightly tweak something, but it's pretty much a deterministic problem. If I want to build the next Google, that's different: We don't know what it is, we don't know whether people will buy it, we don't know how much it will cost, we don't know the business model. The ideal way to deal with extreme uncertainty is to hedge, so students need to learn how to decide how much to hedge.

We know global warming is happening, for example, but we don't really know what is going to happen because of it. How do we innovate in an environment like that? We hedge: If we want to innovate in energy, we don't put all our money on wave generation, for example. We'd put some on other things – or we try four different alternatives for wave generation. Look at the different ways General Motors and Toyota handled the electric or hybrid car. General Motors said, 'Let's kill it.' Toyota hedged by saying, 'We're not going to sell a lot of these, but if we make them, we'll own the market.' And they did.

The other thing I'd do is get the students working on real projects. Innovation means knowing how to think through crazy situations – and you can't learn that without doing it. It's like learning to be a doctor by just reading books and never seeing a patient.

Focus on the opportunity, not the problem

Neil Turok

Physicist and the director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. He gave the 2012 Massey Lecture entitled The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos.

I'd want to show students how to see vast opportunities where everyone else sees nothing but problems – and also to realize who you are and to play to your strengths. In my own life, that's how I went from being a fairly ordinary academic to being on the incredible journey that I'm now on.

My parents were political activists in South Africa, committed against apartheid. In 2003, I drew on that background of commitment to uplifting and advancing Africa by founding a centre in Capetown called the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. I'm not from the business world, but basically, I saw a gap in the market.

There was a huge number of young people in Africa who were aspirants, and we wanted to provide a preparation course to take them from undergrad to being an independent researcher or analyst or skilled worker in math, computing, finance and so on. I believed that if we gave them half a chance, they would excel. We had no money, and nobody believed it would work.

We started with a budget of a few hundred thousand dollars, and now have a budget over the next five years of $100-million. We're now receiving more than 1,000 applications a year. We have centers in South Africa, Senegal and Ghana, with a fourth, in Cameroon, opening in October and a fifth to open in Tanzania next year.

Funnily enough, it's what brought me to Canada and the Perimeter Institute: [Perimeter founder] Mike Lazaridis approached me because of my entrepreneurial success with the African Institute and asked if I'd be interested in applying all those lessons I'd learned to my scientific discipline. Now we're seeing if we can't revolutionize the world of theoretical physics by rewriting the laws of space and time and quantum theory.

Get outside your comfort zone

Bruce Alcock

Filmmaker and the creative director and owner of Global Mechanic Media, a Vancouver strategy and production company. His latest animated short film, Impromptu, makes its debut this fall.

I normally do animation, but in recent years my business has been pivoting more into the zone of digital media, and that's really pushed me outside the zone of familiarity. Coming from an experimental animation background, I bring a physical-world texture into the digital world, and design influences that are really outside the typical digital influences.

I'm approaching it from a different path – so I would encourage business-school students to work in ways that they're not comfortable working in. Putting people together who don't know one another is a good trick: People tend to pair off with friends, so I'd break up who they're working with.

Pushing people to consider situations they aren't familiar with is also important. If someone comes in with expertise working with the restaurant industry, I'd try to get them thinking about mining, for example – and see where that goes. A lot of what blocks people is thinking that there's a right answer or a single methodology for arriving at a solution. The big thing is to encourage people to think about the unfamiliar, and trusting them to have good ideas because they're smart people. They don't need the crutch of familiarity to get them through it.

Always think human

Karim Rashid

Industrial designer who has designed objects for Umbra and Alessi, restaurant and hotel interiors and brand identities for Citibank and Hyundai.

Design is the only brand differentiator and the business approach must be from a different perspective, a poetic position based on a plethora of complex criteria: human experience, social, global, economic and political issues, physical and mental interaction, form, the empowerment of the individual, and a rigorous understanding of design of contemporary culture.

You must each separate yourself from others. You must find new languages, semantics, aesthetics, experiment with new material, and behavioural approaches. Always remember obvious human issues like emotion, ease of use, humour, positive energy and proud spirit. This is what is missing in creative acts.

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