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Innovation and hands-on experience should go hand-in-hand with classroom learning, Executive Pulse panel says.Antonio Diaz/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Executive Pulse seeks input from Canadian leaders on vital issues that affect our business and economy.

When asked what are the most important skills to encourage young people to develop, two of the Globe's Executive Pulse panelists – one from academia and one from business – stressed innovation as key to Canada's future success.

Elementary-aged children

Recognizing the need to foster enthusiasm in the next generation of innovators, Johnson & Johnson Innovation purposely designed its JLABS innovation incubators to appeal to eighth graders.

With its fifth JLAB – and the first in Canada – set to open next spring in the MaRS Discovery District in downtown Toronto, the company is keenly aware of the importance of getting tomorrow's pioneers hooked on the subject of innovation today.

"We want the eighth-grader to say, 'Wow this is so cool, I want to work in a place like this when I get older, so mom and dad, what do I need to do to do that?'" says Melinda Richter, the head of JLABS.

"So we wanted to spread that conversation right from the beginning when they start to get a sense of where their interests are and where they want to follow their path in life from a career perspective."

Higher education

Especially by the time young people reach higher education, that mindset is key, says Sheldon Levy, president of Ryerson University in Toronto.

"Our strategies, policies and resources have got to put young people more in the centre of the innovation agenda rather than being peripheral to it," says Mr. Levy. "Therefore our education systems have got to start looking at innovation as a core competency."

One method to foster innovative thinking is through co-operative education, he suggests.

He credits the University of Waterloo, for instance, for their strong co-op program, where students develop hands-on experience in their field of study, while they are at university.

But beyond acquiring knowledge and skills, he sees the need to foster an entrepreneurial mindset.

"Today, no one questions [the value of] experiential learning and co-op," he says. "Five or 10 years from now, no one should question that there are opportunities for young people in their experiential learning by going to school to try to pull together teams and create a company for a social or economic good."

In a practical sense, Ms. Richter sees higher learning as having three goals: developing critical thinking skills, connecting with those in the industry and really showing students what life will be like in whatever profession they choose to be in.

But Ms. Richter, who founded science and technology consultancy Prescience International after graduating from the University of Saskatchewan, also says it is important to grow beyond the classroom.

Life skills

She suggest five skills that young people could benefit most from learning: passion, courage, communications, connection to market, and respect and responsibility.

"The academic platform is a great place because it's safe and you can learn through other people's experiences," she says, while cautioning that learning requires more than crystallizing the experience of others.

As president of Ryerson, whose DMZ business incubator has seen more than 180 startups and 900 innovators come through its doors since it opened in 2010, Mr. Levy agrees that there is more to the kind of learning Canada's future innovators need than just going to school.

Using the DMZ as an example, he says that the experience students gain when they have a real-life problem, such as an intellectual property issue, and sit down with a lawyer to discuss it, that lends a whole new perspective to their in-class learning.

Entrepreneurial skills

I don't think you can become an entrepreneur by reading a book," he says. "An entrepreneur, an innovator, is someone who has experience doing it, and trying it and failing and then succeeding. It's a hands-on sport, it isn't a book sport."

The very idea of failure, and, more importantly how it is viewed, is one that is vital to the concept of innovation. As Ms. Richter says, innovation involves doing things that are risky, but failure isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it can provide great information that can be used to build upon.

To do that, we have to change our attitudes toward the concept of failure, says Mr. Levy, who mentions that rather than see it as an ending, true innovators see it as the beginning of the process that takes them to the next step. In addition, failure can help breed tenacity and perseverance, both hallmarks of great innovators.

"I think we just have to talk about it differently and valuate it differently and not begin to say you only have one chance," he says. "If you said to an entrepreneur, 'Well you only have one chance,' I would say that 99 per cent of the entrepreneurs would never have become successful."

Editor's note: Johnson & Johnson Innovation designed JLABS, rather than Johnson & Johnson Inc., and Melinda Richter is the head of JLABS, rather than Johnson & Johnson Innovation, as appeared in a previous version of this story. This is the corrected version.

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