* This blog post appeared on the original Banff Forum Blog on November 19, 2013


This is a guest post by Gisèle Yasmeen, Ph.D. – Senior Advisor to the President, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council – Former VP Research and long time Banffer adjusting to life back in Vancouver

The tag line for the Banff Forum is “Young leaders committed to building a better Canada”.  The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council  - or SSHRC – also sees itself as committed to building a better Canada and world by supporting research and graduate research training.  We live in a era of daunting societal challenges and rapid change.  How does the research community take a proactive position with respect to identifying, analysing and responding to “grand challenges” – not only those that are obvious us now, but particularly those that are on the horizon, which may not yet be getting the attention of society in general and the research community in particular? How does one go about identifying the big questions of the future – many of which might require interdisciplinary and multisectoral collaboration? Research is about learning, discovery and changing paradigms and often about finding a way forward to create a better world and future.

Two years ago, SSHRC launched an ambitious foresight project to identify what issues Canada could be facing in a rapidly evolving global context in the next few decades, as well as to enhance theability of the Canadian social sciences and humanities research community to contribute its knowledge, talent and expertise to both understand and shape that future.  While SSHRC had “cast ahead” in the past, with such early investments in aging studies and the digital humanities, a comprehensive, system-wide approach including public engagement, had not been undertaken.  The results have been encouraging.

We undertook a variety of data-gathering techniques in this initiative, including scanning and a scenario-building exercise to gather multiple lines of evidence, in collaboration with the research community across disciplines and partners across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors both in Canada and abroad. Our moniker became “Imagining Canada’s Future” to illustrate that this was to be a creative process; not about predicting, but rather engaging collective knowledge and imagination to think beyond the headlines of the day and to weak signals that were beginning to emerge.

Engagement and support of the research community across disciplines – including those beyond the social sciences and humanities – was a critical success factor to this project from the onset.  After all, ”grand challenges” often cross the boundaries of disciplines and fields of knowledge.  Climate change is a prime example; an issue now firmly on the agenda of the research community across disciplines.  Likewise, working with partners across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors both in Canada and abroad from the beginning was seen as essential to bring in a variety of perspectives.  At the same time, working across disciplinary and sectoral boundaries is challenging due to competing paradigms, world views and priorities.

As a publicly-funded research agency, our focus was not to uncover looming future challenges that are already well-ensconced on the research radar but, rather, to identify areas that are just beginning to emerge and may not yet have a constituency.  While we had a few set-backs, we were patient and persisted with an approach that generated confidence for the process and outcome of the project as we undertook  a range of successful engagement activities.  These included a series of regional panels led by leaders in post-secondary institutions across the country, in addition to a scenarios workshop with Canadian and international participants.  Input was also solicited from aninternational expert panel organized by the prestigious Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.  In the end, if we include social media outreach, thousands of individuals were sought out to provide input in this project.  Recognizing its role as a funding agency in building research capacity, SSHRC strove to develop effective selection criteria that focused on identifying and articulating areas that were meaningful and would allow experimentation with new approaches to push research frontiers.  If we did not learn something new substantively new by the end of the exercise, we would have failed.

So, after all that effort, did we learn anything new? We think we did as summarised in a total of six future challenge questions which will, we hope, inspire and stimulate new, exciting research and related activities.

1.What new ways of learning, particularly in higher education, willwe need to thrive in an evolving society and labour market?Given the growing debates about jobs/skills/knowledge mismatch, our exercise urges an exploration of the relationship between the education system – particularly our own “industry” of post-secondary institutions – and the knowledge and skill needs of the emerging 21st century.


What effects will the quest for energy and natural resources have on our society and our position on the world stage? To what extent are emerging geopolitical issues at home and abroad related to the control of these resources given new methods of exploitation, growing demand and the alarming issue of access to the necessities of life? These are not strictly “technical” issues and the social sciences and humanities have an important role to play going forward.


Given our history, which, by necessity informs our future, how does a settler-society like Canada – dominated by English and French speaking and other rapidly growing communities with ancestry from throughout the world – come to terms with indigenous First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples? Specifically, how will the experiences and aspirations of Aboriginal Peoples inCanada be essential to building a successful shared future?


What might be the implications of global peak population?According to UN estimates, global population may peak at current levels and then may decline by 2050, possibly earlier. Why this might be happening and what are the implications, not just demographically, but also in terms of environmental, ethical, economic, legal and broader social impacts and values? What, for example, are the implications for “end of life” issues on rapidly aging planet?


Similarly, we learned more about rapidly emerging “God-like” technologies such as 3D printing, robotics and the “omics” – many of which are converging and also have huge societal implications, which urgently need to be studied.  Many of these technologies are having a profound impact on the scholarly endeavour itself, especially in terms of new methodologies for teaching and research.


In a rapidly changing “multipolar world”, how do we keep up with myriad emerging regions, beyond the BRICs to include the CIVETS, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia whose populations are also finding their ways to our shores and shaping our own culture, economy and society? As the HSBC ad goes, “In the future, there will be no markets left waiting to emerge”. In this context, what knowledge is needed to thrive in such aninterconnected, global landscape?

These areas of focus have emerged from the Imagining Canada’s Future initiative. Together, with those who have been involved and others,  we are confident of having helped inspire new ways of thinking about research, collaboration and the link between the past, present and the futures we may want to create – and certainly the ones we may wish to avoid –  for our families, communities and societies.  Imagining Canada’s future has led to a productive national discussion about the questions we should be asking today  in order to enhance our understanding to create a better future.