York Leadership Roundtable focuses on digital media expertise

In the age of digital media – the ubiquitous content, services, and platforms used in everything from film and TV to games, the Internet, and mobile devices – innovation can come from small and surprising sources.

No one understands this trend better than Paul Salvini, chief technology officer & vice-president of Canadian operations at Side Effects Software, a Toronto-based global leader in developing 3-D visual effects software. The privately-owned company has only 50 employees, but Side Effects has two Academy Awards for Scientific &Technical Achievement and seen its software used in nine of the last 11 films to win Oscars for Best Visual Effects.

Left: Paul Salvini

During the October meeting of the York Leadership Roundtable, which focused on York University’s digital media research expertise within the wider framework of entertainment and culture, Salvini described the unique challenges facing the digital media industry and the role York is playing in helping Canada to build on its established strengths in the industry.

“Many digital media players have less than 100 employees,” Salvini told an audience of more than 40 senior executives, community leaders and York researchers. “They have an incredible capacity to innovate, but they generally lack the funding or the global reach to execute their brightest and boldest ideas. Moreover, they are often so busy with the realities of operating a lean business that they don’t have the luxury of time to engage in experimental collaborations. They need help to successfully collaborate and secure the funding to commercialize their best ideas.”

CONCERT, the York-led Consortium on New Media, Creative and Entertainment Research & Development in the Toronto Region, is chaired by Stan Shapson, York’s vice-president research & innovation, and has facilitated exactly that kind of discussion between approximately 30 companies, including Side Effects Software. The group has drafted a Regional Innovation Strategy that consisted of 17 recommendations for the Ontario government.

But as the industry continues to rapidly expand its growth potential, which some analysts predict could reach into the trillions of dollars, Salvini also sees a central role for York University in educating knowledge workers with the skills needed to help Canadian digital media companies – both large and small – to advance their established expertise and thrive.

“If Canada is going to maintain its leading role in digital media, we need to educate, collaborate and dominate,” he said. “IBM coined the term ‘T-shaped skills’ to refer to people with an understanding of both business and technology. I’m going to suggest a new term and say we need people with Y-shaped skills that combine expertise in business, technology and creative arts. Given its interdisciplinary approach and strong research and teaching capabilities in all three areas, where better than York for students to study?”

York’s new undergraduate program in digital media, launched in September 2008, was designed to produce students with exactly this range of technical and artistic skills. Administered by the Faculties of Fine Arts and Science & Engineering, the program allows students to take half their courses in computer science and half in the visual arts.

“This undergraduate program builds on our interdisciplinary research expertise in this exciting field and responds to our region’s important needs while helping students to acquire the skills they need to secure rewarding jobs,” said Shapson. “In the near future, we also plan to launch a graduate program in digital media.”

The program’s launch was just one highlight during a short video exploring York’s interdisciplinary cultural and entertainment research strengths, particularly in digital media. The video also examined the research of Professors Amir Asif and Melanie Baljko from the Department of Computer Science & Engineering in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, Professors Nell Tenhaaf and Michael Longford from the Departments of Visual Art and Design in the Faculty of Fine Arts, and Professor Markus Giesler from the Department of Marketing in the Schulich School of Business. Asif, Tenhaaf, Longford and Giesler, along with Barbara Sellers-Young, dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, also attended the event to field questions about York’s digital media expertise.

“We’re extremely well-positioned to take a leadership position in this field, but we need to establish Canada as the number one place in the world to study, research, or work in digital media,” said Salvini. “Education, collaborations like CONCERT and a strong ecosystem that includes a sustainable centre of excellence are essential to that positioning, along with inspired leadership. If we get it right, the benefits to Canada will be tremendous.”

About the York Leadership Roundtable

Created in 2008, this event series connects York Region senior business executives and community leaders with York University researchers and senior administrators. Each event has a theme and features the research of two to five faculty members whose research is highlighted through a short video presentation; the researchers attend the event and engage the audience through an interactive Q&A discussion. Through the roundtable format, participants identify and generate ways to build upon their scientific and social innovation through research partnerships with York University.

Submitted to YFile by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer