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FutureU: A new community-driven program on innovation takes its first steps

By Kent Wong, February 19 2020—

The University of Calgary announced Innovation@UCalgary in late 2019, a new initiative to create an ecosystem to provide students, postdocs, faculty and staff a platform to engage in innovation, ultimately aiming to bring novel ideas to deployed and implemented solutions to real-world issues. Part of this ecosystem is FutureU, a new program launched in 2020 that hopes to help students specifically through experiential learning. 

FutureU is different from its parent in that it hopes to work at a grassroots level to specifically help students, but not through the traditional manner many are accustomed to. Unlike lectures or student services, it invites students to come and participate as a mentee or mentor for one day, in-person discussion forum events, ideathons and multi-day workshop retreats. 

Linking back to Innovation@Ucalgary, it too hopes to connect students with leaders, employers or bringing original ideas into materialization. The biggest difference however is how it encourages students from all faculties and streams to come together and explore pressing real-world issues from a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach. For their inaugural year, they will be focusing on climate change, but they will focus on different subjects in the future. Last week they launched their first talks, a mini-series of climate talks and invited many industry professionals and researchers across the full spectrum of backgrounds to engage with students — I checked out two of them to find out more.

Taken at FutureU on Feb. 13, 2020. // Photo by Mariah Wilson.

Events were opened by Kevan Coyle, a program and community development specialist from Innovate Calgary. As a U of C alumni, he admitted he was disengaged with school in his undergrad years until he discovered a sustainability and leadership club in his senior year. He made a pivot in his education and did another program. Later in his career, he had the chance to come back to the U of C to work with students. Coyle compared his own student journey with the students he worked with in the programs he ran.

“I realized my story was not unique,” he said. “This is something a lot of students experience here on campus, that sense of choosing courses — trying to figure out how they connect the dots, how they’re not well laid out or explicit. In talking to them, they’re interested, curious and want to learn more — but they don’t know how. What I would see in running leadership programs and entrepreneurial thinking programs, students who were involved were transformed in beautiful ways. They went from quiet, reserved, unsure and they come out and they blossom. They’re excited to talk about ideas and connect with people. I thought, how do we get more of this? Ultimately that’s the background of the FutureU program this year.”

For the event on change-making culture, there were a dozen guest speakers giving a quick pitch on what they’re doing regarding climate change. Their backgrounds varied from performing arts, researchers and social sciences, to snowboarders representing a nonprofit. Participants were exposed to a wide spectrum of views and recent projects dealing with climate change. But, more importantly, the talks focused on real and immediate challenges in their respective domains. Discussions allowed students to connect with possible mentors and explore how their education could lead up to a career working on climate change and sustainability.

The second event on reshaping institutions I attended was a very different format. We tackled two real case studies that are currently real problems here in Alberta. One was by Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society — a non-profit environmental group — and the other from Blue Source, one of the largest North American firms focusing on carbon emissions and sustainability consulting. Students were grouped with mentors and broke into case study groups to generate some possible solutions. No matter what background students are coming from, engaging with FutureU will offer them some unique experiences dealing with serious real-world problems and allow them to connect with students and professionals from other disciplines.

Want to get involved? FutureU has several events still lined up in the school year for students, including three two day ideathons throughout March with prizes. You can see the calendar of events at research.ucalgary.ca/innovation/events.

Beyond the school year, Inventures 2020 is a 3-day innovation conference coming to Calgary with over 250 speakers in June. Lastly, the FutureU program has a mentorship program where students can link up with a mentor. You can find more about the FutureU program, sign up for their newsletter, and the mentorship link program at their home page research.ucalgary.ca/innovation/ecosystem/futureu.


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