Why basic research matters III: Paul Axelrod

Why does university research matter? The most common, and most persuasive explanation is that scholarly inquiry may lead to such outcomes as a cure for cancer, a bump in the Gross National Product, or an end to bullying in schools. All of these are worthy goals, and academics in Canada contribute day in and day out to these and hundreds of other important projects.

But I believe research matters for a very different reason: the university is the only institution in society that encourages professors and students to explore knowledge freely and to follow their discoveries wherever they lead.

Corporations, governments, and non-profit organizations value research, but they are selective about the projects they support. They choose projects designed to enhance profitability, support particular policies, or facilitate advocacy. Again, all of these goals enhance the quality of Canadian life. But they also impose thematic and intellectual constraints on the researcher.

Academic boundaries are less confining. To be sure, there are rules to be followed. Data must be assembled responsibly, privacy protocols must be respected, researchers must be accountable for the funds they spend. But if they meet these requirements, the sky, intellectually, is the limit. Topics can be arcane, puzzling, or to many observers, stunningly irrelevant. But through – and only through – such inquiry, the most imaginative, creative work  in arts and sciences can emerge.

Imagine a researcher who seeks to understand student life in Canadian universities during the 1930s.  He or she would want to ask questions such as: Who went to university, (i.e. students’ age, gender, religion, social class etc.)? Why did they attend? What did they study? How were they taught? What extra-curricular activities preoccupied them? How did they dress? Did they have sex? Were they politically active? Were they affected by the Depression’s hard economic times? What did they do after they graduated?

To answer these questions, the researcher would have to explore pertinent documents in university archives, including student newspapers, discipline reports, course calendars, photographs, and alumni records. To broaden the context, one should examine what politicians, newspapers, and the public were saying about universities. One would also want to know what was happening in higher education elsewhere in the world. Were Canada’s institutions unique or did they follow international trends?

An intensive study on such a small topic might well illuminate some larger historical themes on youth culture, life in the Depression, the economic role of higher education, and gender relations.

Full disclosure: I conducted this study and published it under the title, Making a Middle Class: Student Life in English Canada during the Thirties. It was among the most fulfilling research projects I have carried out in my 35-year university career. The scoping out of the subject, the systematic exploration of the records, the marshalling of evidence, the discovery of historical patterns, the exhausting process of writing, editing, writing again, and the pleasure of seeing the final product were immensely rewarding.

Did this work matter to anyone but me? I think so. It contributed to the literature on the evolution and characteristics of higher education in Canada, but it also informed and enhanced my teaching. Students were intrigued not only by the academic and social lives of their predecessors but also by the process of conducting original research. They were anxious to master the skills required by taking on their own projects.

I am a stickler for lucid prose, so they endured my continuous critiques of their writing (which invariably improved). The discipline they developed in conceiving, conducting, and completing essays on topics (perhaps equally esoteric to outside observers) mattered immensely and, ultimately, served them well in their post-university endeavours. Among other things, they learned how to define, investigate, and solve an intellectual problem, and how to convey their new knowledge to others.

All research, including the most unlikely and obscure, offers similarly creative possibilities. Commentators in politics and the media who disparage “curiosity-based research” for its alleged lack of relevance and applicability miss the point.

Faculty and students who do this work well have great imaginations. They ask unusual questions, search inventively for answers, rigorously defend themselves among skeptical peers, and push back the frontiers of knowledge. Isn’t that why we have universities?

 

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Walmart and groceries

Paul Fraumeni | March 11, 2015

A little more than one year ago, Shelley Broader, CEO of Walmart Canada, announced her chain was moving fully into the grocery business. Walmart’s Canadian stores had added full grocery lines to some of its larger outlets, but Broader’s plan was to inject $500 million into expanding the number of Walmarts that offer groceries. Canada seems to have a full complement of grocery stores already, with Loblaws, Metro, Sobey’s, Longo’s, Costco and the discount stores related to some of these chains. Are we at the point of market saturation? We asked Professor David Soberman for his thoughts. Soberman is a professor of marketing and the Canadian National Chair of Strategic Marketing at U of T’s Rotman School of Management. Q. Almost all Walmarts will soon offer a full line of groceries. Don’t we have enough grocery stores already? No. The simplest explanation for why Walmart is entering the grocery market is that the population of Canada is growing, so we would expect there to be an increasing number of grocery stores. A lot of people perceive this as being a massive increase to the number of chains but if you go back 20 or so years ago you had IGA, Food City, A&P, Dominion, and Loblaws. The bottom line is that even in those days we had five or six chains. Q. So it’s more about the product line, not the number of chains? Right. The focus today is on combining a variety of product lines that used to be offered in separate stores. One-stop shopping is the key now. People used to separate their grocery shopping from other shopping. So you might go to a mall to do Christmas shopping, for example, or to buy clothing or school supplies for your children. But for your groceries, you would have to make a separate trek to the supermarket. Now, it’s all being combined. That’s the main reason Walmart is expanding into groceries. They already carry household products and clothing. Potentially this can put Walmart in a bit of a pickle because they have something like 400 stores but half of them don’t really have complete grocery sections. Now they are ramping that up so that the majority of their stores include the full grocery section. The idea is that when people think of going grocery shopping they’ll actually go to Walmart. Q. How do grocery stores distinguish themselves? Don’t they really all offer pretty much the same products? No, I think they do actually create distinct images. Sobey’s, Loblaws and Metro all have discount stores, so that enables them to compete by reaching different audiences. And even the discount versions, like FreshCo, No Frills and Food Basics, each offer a somewhat different approach from each other in the discount sector of grocery shopping. But the gold standard is Loblaws. They’ve created very much their own image with their pioneering efforts in private labels, with President’s Choice and No Name, and the collection of products they’re offering. That approach has really helped them to create differentiation. Q. What about the higher-end grocery stores, like Pusateri’s and McEwen? Do they make a difference to the overall grocery industry? This is called segmentation. In cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary or Montreal you have a certain segment of the population, maybe 5 or 10 percent, who are high-income earners who like to spoil themselves with exotic foods or imported items that cost a bit more but that offer different tastes and experiences. This is not the sort of thing sold en masse by a Sobey’s or Metro because the turnover isn’t there and these kinds of products are not part of their model. In contrast, the objective of a Pusateri’s or a McEwen is precisely to allow shoppers to find the exotic foods or imported items that cannot be found elsewhere. They charge a higher price so they don’t need the volume of a prototypical supermarket: as long as a specialty grocer like Pusateri’s has a steady flow of customers, the business model is viable. Whatever big city you go to you’ll see these types of stores. In London, England, you see Fortnum and Mason and in Paris, you see Fauchon which is the same sort of shopping experience, for wealthier people who want special jam or imported escargots imported from a certain region of France. But these grocery stores don’t have a negative influence on the business of the larger chains.   A longer version of this story was originally published by the University of Toronto. It has been edited for clarity, accuracy and brevity, and is republished here with permission. 

Entrepreneurship: not just for ...

Joanne Benham Rennick | March 9, 2015

Business schools have been teaching innovation and entrepreneurship for years. Now, a relatively new concept called “social entrepreneurship” is showing potential to expand that entrepreneurial spirit into the world of liberal arts and social acitvism. Social entrepreneurship offers a critical opportunity for higher education to drive new ways of investing in personal, social and economic advancement. The term “social entrepreneur” was coined by Bill Drayton, the founder of a nonprofit organization called Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. Drayton himself is a good example of the how to combine activism professionalism and entrepreneurship. His entrepreneurial enthusiasm and his training in economics and law allows him to advocate on behalf of complex social issues including civil rights, environmental degradation, and economic disparity. His greatest social contribution, though, is his recognition and empowerment of others. He seeks out people making positive social change to become Ashoka Fellows. Ashoka Fellows are game changers: people who effect systems-level change that improves the lives of millions by transforming the social landscape. While social entrepreneurship may have started as a subfield of business, Paul C. Light argues that the movement now incorporates at least four distinct approaches to improving the social fabric: Social Exploration, Social Innovation, Social Advocacy, and Social Safekeeping. He describes Social Exploration as an area that involves investigating and planning against social threat (think global warming, climate wars, water shortages, and population explosion). David Suzuki and his environmental foundation fit into this stream of social enterprise. Social Innovation might include developing and implementing new ideas to deal with complex problems. The Canadian education program Roots of Empathy is an example of this, as are new developments in the areas of bionics and bio-prosthetic health devices. Social Advocacy is the arena in which individuals and groups lobby for lasting change through political pressure, policy innovations, research and legal efforts. Project Ploughshares and Amnesty International are examples of Social Advocacy. Closely linked to the advocacy area is Social Safekeeping that focusses on protecting progress that has already been made but could easily disappear without constant vigilance such as human rights, global health - think Doctors Without Borders and the Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights group. I think higher education is ripe for a more nuanced approach to learning. I believe social entrepreneurship holds potential to create the kinds of leaders the world needs, while injecting some sanity and sustainability into an unbalanced economic system. It also creates a context for empowering and employing young people through innovative new initiatives that they themselves create. Muhammad Yunnus, innovator of “microcredit financing” and the Grameen Bank once said “Many young people today feel frustrated because they cannot recognize any worthy challenge that excites them within the present capitalist system. When you have grown up with ready access to the consumer goods of the world, earning a lot of money isn’t a particularly inspiring goal.” Working together with each other, community mentors and accelerator centres, students actually get a chance to first think about the change they want to see in the world and then work to become it. The opportunities for social innovation are, for good and for bad, overly abundant.    

Cosmopolitan consumers

Noreen Fagan | March 5, 2015

Canadians eat more sushi than Japanese people, according to Mark Cleveland. Cleveland is a professor of marketing at Western University. His research focuses on the integration of cultures on a global scale and the effects of cosmopolitanism, which according to Cleveland is, “the cultural openness and the ability to successfully navigate between different cultural groups.” In other words, people who want to understand and experience other cultures do so by fully immersing themselves in that culture. “You want to live the life of cultural authenticity, by trying to understand the culture through that culture’s eyes,” he says. Cleveland’s interest in cultural openness started when he was a Master’s and then a Ph.D. student at Concordia University in Montreal. He started researching how new immigrants, primarily ethic minorities, adapted to Canadian culture by finding ways to combine their traditional identities, culture and values into mainstream society. “I have always believed that just because you learn another culture does not mean you give up the original culture. You can be bicultural or multicultural and the two can reinforce each other,” says Cleveland. “Not only are minorities affected by cultural exchange but the majority are as well.” Canada’s multiculturalism prompted Cleveland to extend his research into globalization, with a focus on how global cultures affect majority populations around the world. In the last decade Cleveland has conducted research in 15 to 20 countries exploring cultural exchange and cosmopolitanism. He says a person no longer has to travel abroad – although it helps – to become cosmopolitan. A person can experience different cultures in the comfort of their own home or neighbourhood, simply by watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing videos on You Tube or buying and consuming different products. “When we buy products, and types of brands and the reasons for buying them, they are like extensions of ourselves,” he says. So how do the sushi–eating Canadians fit into all of this? Cleveland believes if a person wants to experience cultural authenticity they will gear their shopping towards achieving that aim. In other words, a person is not going to go for the North American version of sushi (think Californian Roll), when they can get the real thing – think Unagi. He says there is probably a general global trend towards cultural openness as people become more educated and have more exposure to other cultures but he warns, there is another side. “A lot of people are really opposed to what is happening with Globalization and they see their culture as under threat,” says Cleveland adding that the threat is heightened when people feel insecure. If people are feeling secure in their surroundings (financially, emotionally and physically), the more open they are to cultural exchange and the more cosmopolitan they become. Being cosmopolitan however, does not mean buying local is a thing of the past; in fact what makes cosmopolitans stand out is that they strive for cultural authenticity. “The more cosmopolitan you are means you are not only interested in preserving differences but also interested in the environment, like getting the best locally,” says Cleveland. In terms of cosmopolitanism Cleveland thinks Canadians are more accepting of other cultures. “We are a new country, most of us go back two or three generations and have one or two grandparents born somewhere else. We have a more fluid identity,” he says, adding that as large cities go, Toronto is well integrated. “We are not just living in these areas dominated by our own ethic group, there are more opportunities to mix, and I think that allows us to become more open-minded.”        

It’s not the ...

Araina Bond | March 3, 2015

Social media has changed advertising and marketing so drastically that companies can barely keep up, and consumers have had to completely rethink the influence advertising has in their lives, when many ads are embedded, targeted and constantly popping up in their browsers. Robert Kozinets has been thinking about the meaning of our relationship with the online community since the mid-nineties. Netscape was the hot new browser. If people thought about the Internet at all, it was mainly for online shopping. Flash forward almost two decades, where a world without Facebook and Twitter would be unimaginable. Now his efforts to understand the relationship between ethnography and brands, consumer culture and technology have become even more relevant to daily life. Kozinets, a Professor of Marketing at York University, explains that social media allow the consumer to connect with brands more directly. The overt agenda of traditional advertisements can create consumer skepticism, but independent bloggers seen to offer more objective reviews of products and services. “I try to help the business community recognize there are human qualities online,” he says. “Somewhere along the line the humanity got lost.” Back when he was completing his PhD at Queen’s University, Kozinets pioneered the concept of Netnography, an approach that seeks to understand the relationship between culture and online communities. “These days, you don’t engage with brands directly,” he explains. “You and the Old Spice Guy,’ for example, have a relationship because you use it with your boyfriend to spice it up, to joke and tease. The brand is being used to strengthen your relationship.” Some companies employ people to interact with the public, specifically to protect their image, increase brand awareness and generate sales. Taco Bell, for instance, has won media attention and awards for engaging directly with its followers, crafting a persona that is funny, hip and media savvy. Their team in charge of @TacoBell uses a winning combination of hashtags, retweets, pithy comebacks, and funny life hacks to win over followers and customers. Though Kozinets believes this trend supports consumer engagement, he also sees that many businesses can be unaware of the strength of this approach and therefore underutilize it. Consumers, on the other hand, have been also been employing social media as a way to assert their voices. An ill-treated musician who flew on the airline created the Youtube video “United Breaks Guitars,” which went viral. In the end, its popularity led United Airlines to make reparations for ruining the musician’s guitar after months of his dealings with customer service led to nothing but frustration. Kozinets believes that this situation is far from simple: “Anthropologists have a long history of looking at changes such as colonization for the benefits as well as the drawbacks they bring. Technology and marketing culture are like that too. In some ways they empower some people, for some purposes. In other ways, they create new challenges, difficulties, and inequalities. It is our job to trace them out and try to follow them, rather than believing the hype or the pessimists.” However, all this time spent online, Kozinets warns, has inured us to the fact that governments and companies have access to our very personal information. “Who is watching the watchers?” he asks. Academic voices have been mostly muted on this topic. He sees some progress being made within business schools, pointing out that it’s a mistake to see them as the lapdogs of corporations. Highly critical research, he explains, can lead to improved legislation that protects privacy, and this would make the online experience – now a part of everyday life – a safer and more secure experience for everyone. “More complicated?” He asks. “Yes. More interesting? Definitely.”      

Carpooling: there’s an ...

UOIT Staff | March 1, 2015

Fuel and insurance costs, parking fees, vehicle upkeep, traffic congestion, weather conditions and sheer time spent on the road. No matter how you slice it, commuting by car in the GTA tests every driver’s patience. And it certainly takes a toll on the pocketbook. One way motorists can get around the financial roadblock of commuting is to share costs by setting up a carpool. But even getting a carpool off the ground can be a trying task: how do you find people who are going where you are? How do you know where to meet someone? What if schedules change? “We examined all of these questions and looked for a way to create an app-based tech solution to tackle the challenges that prevent carpooling,” said Hamid Akbari, Assistant Professor,Faculty of Business and Information Technology at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. “Our answer is Blancride: an innovative carpooling platform that matches passengers with drivers who share the same travel needs.” Blancride works through smartphones as a customized message-board. It automatically balances the costs of each trip between each passenger and driver, simplifying the financial transaction and lowering the cost of each individual’s trip. Blancride takes a small fee for performing the service. “Passengers who use Blancride are sharing costs with the driver. Our cost-sharing platform is designed to be an affordable, commuter-friendly option, or to complement public transit. Costs for passengers are often comparable to public transit and significantly cheaper than a taxi.” Blancride is completely different from taxi services, which take direction from the passenger on final destination and receive payment for that service. With Blancride, drivers don’t make a profit: they only share their costs for the route they already intend to drive. Prices are calculated with a cost-per-kilometer amount, which lets passengers and drivers know the full cost of the trip before taking the ride. Blancride runs on iPhones and Androids and is accessible 24/7. As a new ride is offered or requested, the system calculates the appropriate matches and notifies the matched users. “If you use the app to tell us where you are going, then we'll show you who you can share that ride with. We encourage all drivers to post their planned rides because this helps people get around, day or night.” After working on the concept and design, Dr. Akbari reached out to his global network to build a team that shared his passion. The team is comprised of more than 30 individuals from North America, South America and Europe, and 13 UOIT students and alumni. He also partnered with Spark Innovation Centre to help Blancride open its doors and start growing as a company. More recently, Blancride was accepted to the Faculty of Business and Information Technology incubator, a for-credit program that promotes student entrepreneurship at UOIT and helps the university’s tech-startups grow and become globally successful. With the support of his faculty’s incubator, as well as his Dean, Dr. Pamela Ritchie, and Associate Dean Steve Rose, Dr. Akbari’s Blancride app was launched in November 2014. The app is available currently only to students, staff and faculty at UOIT and Durham College, but Dr. Akbari is encouraged that in Blancride’s first two weeks, 470 people signed up with about one-third being drivers. “New carpooling lanes are being built all the time, so we know governments at all levels are committed to support carpooling,” said Dr. Akbari. “Blancride makes carpooling easy. We know there’s always going to be a market for affordable transportation. We’ve uncovered a great new way to match supply with demand.”
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