The National Youth Leadership & Innovation Summit

The National Youth Leadership & Innovation Summit

On April 29 & 30, ~300 Canadian youth and youth-serving leaders will convene at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto to explore a strategy for Canadian Youth Leadership & Innovation. Here’s my personal context for attending and my vision for the Summit.

The Future for Youth

It must be said: the future for Canadian youth is dire.

Almost regardless of where we are or where we grew up, my generation faces a future of immense complexity: the first symptoms of global climate change; a global economy in tidal recession and a decline in global productivity; new eras (and issues) in social justice, equity, and reconciliation; the volatility and inequality brought by democratizing technology and globalization; and above all, a minimization of the ability of the infrastructure and systems of the 20th century to deal with these challenges. From education to governance to business to health, calls for reform that began decades ago continue to fall flat in practice as the 21st century world accelerates beyond these systems’ capacity to service their people.

Modern public discourse continues to be optimistic. We wonder how we might stop climate change, how we might end oppression and prejudice, how we might invest in infrastructure and social services, and how we might end poverty. We wonder how to solve pensions and restore retirement, how to minimize debt financing, how to eliminate un- and under-employment, and how to ensure healthcare can continue to service our aging and rural population sustainably.

And yet, amidst the optimistic fervour, our newest generations are less educated and more indebted than any that came before them.

With a lack of opportunity and resources, and facing more intractable and relentless problems than any yet observed, it must be restated: the future for Canadian youth is dire.
We may believe that some of these problems will be solved before the current generations fully inherit Canadian society in the next two to three decades. We may believe that our economies will rebound, that our growth will somehow become sustainable, that technology will save us, and that life will go on as we know it.

However, given the lack of progress found in (and growing entanglement between) each of these complex challenges over the course of recent history, the probable futures of mid-21st century Canada are likely to be difficult in unprecedented ways.

But there is hope. Despite this preamble, I am actually optimistic.

The unrelenting challenges of our present are currents and riptides, not waves.

The reality is that our generation — and our children’s — will not live the way our parents did. The unrelenting challenges above are currents and riptides, not waves. In our probable futures, their inertia will transform society and Canadian life as an aeon of Atlantic storms shifts a shoreline of granite bedrock: with austere subtlety. And while we must do everything we can to mitigate the ramifications of these changes, we also must accept that they will take place, in one form or another.

Other undercurrents of change give us the tools we need to adapt to these futures.

Trends and signals like the sharing economy, social enterprise, and new platforms for learning and connection facilitate ingenuity and co-creativity in ways impossible to even imagine in the 20th century. It is now easier than ever to do anything, to make anything; in fact, the challenge of creation has changed from one of “how” to “what”. Automation, robotics, machine learning, and other technologically-enabled tools will provide further freedom. Indeed, Margaret Mead’s timeless adage (“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”) manifests in this new world in ever-truer ways.

How, though, might Canada’s youth harness these emergent opportunities to adapt to the new structures of the 21st century?

Leadership and Innovation

The Summit has already answered this question: Leadership and Innovation.

While many theories of leadership exist, the best definition is the simplest. Leadership is making an idea become reality; it is living by your values; and it is making more leaders. Likewise, innovation is the creation of value from novelty. Thus, these concepts intersect: leaders must be capable of innovation, and Canadian youth will need both for Canada to succeed in our tumultuous futures. It is at the intersection of true leadership and innovation that Canadian youth will make new ways of life and work, to adapt to this changed world. It is unlikely that any system — public or private — currently buffering us against the coming storms will stay the same for the decades to come. Our youth must be capable of using leadership and innovation in deliberate ways to reinvent these systems. They must be capable of recognizing and crystallizing emergent opportunities. The youth of today must, individually, discover new ways to save for retirement, to find and build fulfilling and dynamic careers, to raise safe and healthy families. They must be capable, collectively, of finding new ways to govern and organize, to uphold justice, to be productive, to promote global peace. Only through the enhancing their capacity to lead and innovate will these objectives be realized.

These concepts, however, are often lost to the aura of buzzwords. Leadership is generally accepted as a rare trait — one that someone must be born into — that means people will become Prime Ministers and CEOs. Likewise, innovation is only something Google or Facebook or someone in the Waterloo-Kitchener-Toronto corridor is capable of. These myths hurt us; they detract from our potential. That make these crucial ideas intimidating and inaccessible.

Instead, we must teach our young people that leadership is not rare, but transient, and that we can act with leadership whenever we think to do so. We must teach them that leadership is simple: it could be to collect friends and classmates in a regular pick-up hockey game, to write a blog post about an issue at their schools, or to help a friend do the same. Similarly, we must teach them the processes of innovation; that it is not unreachable invention. We must teach that to be an innovator is simply to connect disconnected pieces of their communities, capabilities, and resources. Innovation is to realize that a crafting hobby can turn into a DIY social enterprise; that their tutoring tips might be useful to others on YouTube; that a reorganization of the checkout process at the cafe they work at might make customers happier and reduce costs for the business. Thus, leadership and innovation manifest in entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship that changes worlds: they just happen to be our own worlds.

The new economies of innovation and connection will be celebrated in tech startups and campus incubators. Their true promise and wealth, however, will come from the little ways young Canadians learn to harness the possibility of the 21st century.

What we must accept is that we cannot leave these young people to naivety: that we must not be naive ourselves. Canadian youth will certainly inherit a complex and different world, and we cannot allow them to inherit the myths of leadership and innovation as well. This will require a systemic and holistic reform effort to give our youth the literacies that will make them capable of leveraging leadership and innovation in the everyday.

This is what the Summit needs to deliver.

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