A campus breeding ground for high-tech entrepreneurs is turning for inspiration to Canada's original digital renaissance woman.
Gerri Sinclair was a Shakespeare scholar who became a Web pioneer, sold a company to Microsoft and went on to advise governments and businesses on tech strategy. Now the 63-year-old Vancouver entrepreneur wants to unlock the innovation power on Canadian campuses and ultimately shake up the way they do research. One of her first stops is Ryerson University.
Ms. Sinclair will become a visiting professor and special adviser to the downtown Toronto university, focused on a digital media development hub, but with implications that she believes will resonate across this campus and beyond.
"When you start to really delve into what does a digital strategy mean, it almost means the rethinking of education itself," she said.
To help build the school's digital strategy, Ms. Sinclair will work with the new Digital Media Zone, an experiment that nurtures students' high-tech business ideas and matches them with companies looking for technology development. Her appointment is to be announced Wednesday.
Ms. Sinclair's decision to join with Ryerson - she recently retired as leader of Vancouver's Centre for Digital Media, where she founded a master's program - was prompted by a long-felt frustration over the way university research is funded and faculty rewarded. She is critical of what she sees as the growing expectation that traditional research will produce market-focused results.
As a board member of a federal granting council, Ms. Sinclair says traditional research needs financial support, but argues a different model is required to fund innovation. And that, she says, is why she is working with Ryerson.
"That's why I am here, because I haven't seen anything like it," she said on a recent visit to the Digital Media Zone offices overlooking downtown Toronto's Dundas Square. "It's a new role for universities and it's a natural transition from what I have been doing."
At a time when innovation is on the tip of every politician's tongue, Ryerson is nurturing student ideas to see if it can kick-start new companies and keep talent in Canada. As well as working on their own projects, the Digital Media Zone plans to become a kind of test lab for businesses with technology challenges.
The Ryerson experiment, which is expanding to give free space and support to 100 undergraduate and graduate students and alumni this year, is the kind of approach needed, Ms. Sinclair says, to tap into young people's fledgling ideas. The project has helped start 10 businesses since it opened eight months ago.
Ms. Sinclair will work with faculty on ways to incorporate the resources offered by the Digital Media Zone into courses across the campus, possibly as co-op placements, and on ways to give companies access to student ideas and talent.
Ryerson president Sheldon Levy says Ms. Sinclair's arrival - her advice will be delivered online, with regular visits to campus - signals a new phase for the school's digital media ambitions. "We need someone who is one step ahead of where we are and has contacts," he said.
The pair also see eye-to-eye on the problem of expecting market-focused results from curiosity-driven research. "We shouldn't be trying to twist it that way," he said. "Innovation is something different."
If Ryerson's digital media experiment is successful, his hope is that the project - funded entirely by the university - can be used by other campuses.
Aside from her work at Ryerson, advising faculty and staff on developing their ideas, Ms. Sinclair hopes to apply her digital know-how to higher education in general and plans to work with other Canadian campuses.
A grandmother who plays World of Warcraftand first experimented with programming at her son's side, Ms. Sinclair foresees a digital revolution that will change how teaching is done.
That rethinking, she predicts, will include using digital media, likely in the form of games, to support interactive learning. She also is involved in efforts to use gaming to influence real-world behaviour and attitudes.
"We live in this hybrid world," she said. "We live in a digital world and we live here. I am very interested in what that means for us as an evolving human race."