Reflections on Spur Toronto by RBC Emerging Scholar Abdullah Khan

This was my first Spur Festival, and when I was applying to be an RBC Emerging Scholar, I honestly wondered what to expect. How does the program work? What did they mean by a festival of ideas? Taking part in a national conversation?

As the Toronto Spur Festival is now over, I would like to share my experience with everyone and to encourage other young scholars to engage in similar opportunities. Watching a group of diverse panelists discuss topics from journalism to health to art collection, and how everything ties down to risk was exhilarating. Such exchanges of ideas among different members of society are important, and festivals such as Spur not only permeate knowledge, but give a platform to members of the community to have their voices heard. The most fascinating aspect was watching members of the community come and engage with bright minds on topics that affect them. As I attended a number of back-to-back events, I couldn’t help but notice that the audience changed for each events—yes, there were a few people who attended every event, but for the most part I saw a different audience in each event.

Here’s a small sample of the facts I learned while listening to the panelists: in the last 3 years, even though GDP grew, greenhouse gas emissions went down; art pieces (especially collector paintings) usually lose value in the long run (usually after 20 years!); Canadian hospitals still use fax machines, which is emblematic of the poor state of technology in Canadian healthcare; and, studies show there is no difference in risk preference between men and women.

Of course, no talk was complete without references to the political changes south of the border. Some speakers were inherently pessimistic in their assessment of the future. Others pointed out the role media played in shaping the course of the 2016 election. Yet others highlighted the fact that not everything will change: for example businesses are realizing that “green” investments work and are rapidly innovating, regardless of the fact that some powerful people have different views on climate change. I’ll just add my two cents—while it is important to criticize what it wrong, we must not fall into a pessimistic trap. Cynicism is not an antidote to the world’s problems. We should instead focus our energies on solutions, on ways to reduce risk and misery of people around the world. Speakers at the Spur festival alluded to a number of them: technology improving health care; revamped media models; and, more sensible (and less complex) regulations to rein in the worst impulses on Wall Street.

As I’m sure you can tell, I was deeply engaged by the different opinions presented at the festival—in fact it even got me interested in learning more about art collection, something I knew nothing about—and really enjoyed the whole program, especially interacting with panelists, other RBC Emerging Scholars, and the hard working festival staff. The festival got me thinking about a number of risks around the world, which I’m sure will help me enrich my masters program in Global Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Oxford this fall. I hope other young scholars avail such opportunities in the future and become part of the conversation.


Abdullah will graduate this spring from the University of Toronto with majors in International Relations and Economics, and will be pursuing an MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Oxford this fall. He is deeply interested in international trade (especially the role trade has played in the rise of anti-globalization sentiment), resolving frozen conflicts and international development. He has worked on a number of research projects, including one that examines the origins and development of modern states.

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