Interviewed on September 16, 2014 by Monica Pohlmann.
Pohlmann: What keeps you awake at night?
Stein: Canadians aren’t change leaders. We’re deeply, deeply risk averse. If you give us a choice, we prefer the status quo, because we think it’s less risky. What we don’t understand is the cost of inaction. Most of our public sector institutions are buried in process. In the last year, minute scandals about minute amounts of money have consumed the public agenda. It’s all about the evaluation of process as opposed to a conversation about what we want to accomplish together. We don’t use process to enable, we use it to obstruct. Process also drives you to the middle. If you’re unwilling to offend anybody, you don’t get imaginative, innovative solutions. Ultimately, that approach could degrade our quality of life.
The corporate sector is the least risk averse. It has a better-developed sense of risk and understands that the status quo is not sustainable. If you look at where real environmental leadership is coming from in this country, it’s the private sector—the insurance industry and the energy sector. As soon as the insurance industry starts to create a marketplace around environmental risk, we’re going to move on this issue much more quickly than we are now. The energy sector is the one saying that we need environmentally responsible policy, because it’s overwhelmingly in their interest.
We need more entrepreneurial spirit in this country, most of all in the public and not-for-profit sectors. We have to look beyond government for doers. The not-for-profit sector is getting more and more entrepreneurial all the time. Part of what is driving its innovative activities is that there is so little money and so much ambition. Under these circumstances, you’re driven to find new ways to do things. The good news is that we have a greater capacity for self-organization in this country than we give ourselves credit for.
Pohlmann: What energizes you?
Stein: Young people! I’ve spent my life working with young people, and this is the most adventurous, clear-eyed, hard-nosed generation I’ve met. They depend on themselves, are single-minded in their desire to get the best skills, have a global view, and are not risk averse. Our students in the Munk School of Global Affairs are starting start-ups! They have the capacity and the confidence to move out from under the big, cumbersome institutions.
Pohlmann: If things turn out badly over the next 20 years, what would have happened?
Stein: We would have failed to keep our young people. They will go where the work is interesting and challenging, and where they can contribute. That will be a huge loss. If we don’t reorient our institutions to make them hospitable to members of this generation, they will just walk right around them and do other things. Our institutions will atrophy, because they won’t have people to shake things up and say, no, we’re not going to do it this way anymore.
We will also fail if we do not recover from our terminal illness of smugness and self-satisfaction. Otherwise, we are not going to push ourselves hard enough and will ultimately slide into mind-numbing mediocrity. The rest of the world is changing faster than we are. Look at what China was 50 years ago and what China is today. Unimaginable! Look at the social experiments going on in Brazil. We have a lot to learn. What’s missing here is urgency. Comfort is our biggest enemy. The leaders of our established institutions have to wake up and understand what is going on in the world.
Pohlmann: If you could ask a clairvoyant anything about Canada’s future, what would you want to know?
Stein: Will we be able to leverage the enormous intelligence and creativity we have in this country to enrich the quality of innovation? My colleagues and I are looking at what policies governments and the private sector can use to enhance the benefits of innovation as you go through the innovation frontier. The question of who benefits from innovation and who doesn’t is really going to matter. In some innovative societies, the benefits of innovation are evenly distributed, and in some societies, they’re not. If, in our society, those who innovate are hugely rewarded but those who are outside of that process are hugely disadvantaged, we will not have the kind of Canada that we want. And how can you involve minorities, including young Aboriginal people, in a vibrant innovation economy and society? These are important policy questions.
Pohlmann: What important decisions does Canada have to make?
Stein: We have to make some hard decisions about who we are going to be and what we’re going to do in the world. We are a small country and we cannot do everything. In the attempt, we weaken our impact everywhere we go. We have to have this debate, and in the process, we will make Canadians proud instead of angry.
We are wholly dependant on immigration for our future. We’re very good at it, but again, there’s a risk of smugness. We know from good research that our big cities are not doing as well in opening doors to employment and advancement to immigrants as they were two decades ago. Yet if we’re going to thrive, we have to attract even more immigrants than we have in the past. To many people around the world, we are the most attractive country to come to. We have to live up to that record.