From left to right: President and CEO of the APF Yuen Pau Woo, Daniel Shapiro, Dean of the Beedie School of Business, and former member of the Canadian Senate Jack Austin. 

The ties between Canada and Asia are becoming an increasingly important part of Canada’s economy. The Pacific Ocean has become a highway by sea and by air for Canadian commerce and is continuing to grow exponentially. It was only last summer that former member of the Canadian Senate Jack Austin encouraged Canada to embrace an identity as a Pacific country and look across the ocean to its future.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, to find that the Beedie School of Business is host to a research centre dedicated to exploring the business issues relevant to Canada’s interests in the Asia Pacific region.

The Jack Austin Centre for Asia Pacific Business Studies was established in 2010 in partnership with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. Named after former member of the Canadian Senate Jack Austin to honour his long-held vision of strong Canada-Asia relations, the centre has a remit of carrying out research, outreach and training activities in the sector.

“There is no other centre of its kind in western Canada,” says Sudheer Gupta, Director of the Jack Austin Centre for Asia Pacific Business Studies. “The Jack Austin Centre was established to create a hub of ideas and knowledge in order to shape the future of Canada-Asia relations.”

The centre is the result of a partnership between the Beedie School of Business and the Asia Pacific Foundation (APF). According to Gupta, the centre would not have been possible without the support from the APF.

“The APF was instrumental in gaining support from the community and obtaining initial funding,” says Gupta. “Our partnership with the APF is very important and mutually beneficial – we collaborate on many different levels. We benefit from the extensive network of the APF and the thought leadership they provide on many important issues, while providing them with intellectual expertise and research skills.”

The centre’s current research focuses on three themes: Canada- Asia mutual investments; innovation and entrepreneurship; and environmental, social and corporate governance issues in Asia.

The signature project for the centre, conducted in partnership with the APF and China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, is an ongoing survey on Chinese companies to understand patterns of foreign direct investments in Canada.

According to Yuen Pau Woo, President and CEO of the APF, the survey will prove to be vital in increasing understanding of Canada-Asia business relations.

“The survey will fill a gap in our knowledge on Canada-China investment, which is an issue of growing importance,” says Woo. “It will be a valuable source of feedback for policymakers and will help inform further research on the subject.”

Woo is in no doubt about the benefits of the partnership between the Jack Austin Centre and the APF. The centre provides the APF with access to talent and assets such as research, training and networks at the Beedie School of Business, which they would otherwise find inaccessible.

“The research conducted by the Jack Austin Centre is important not just because of the focus on Asia Pacific business issues, but also because of the attention to the practical concerns of businesspeople and policymakers,” says Woo. “By combining academic rigour with business and public policy relevance, the centre can be a world leader in its chosen areas of expertise, and hence serve as a magnet for ideas and talent on those issues.”

The shifting balance of power

At a time when the global balance of power is shifting towards Asia, statistics present overwhelming evidence for why Canada ought to be paying attention.

Asia, an area that holds 60 percent of the world’s population will soon account for 50 percent of the world’s consumption in a wide range of industries, while the stock of foreign direct investment from Asia into Canada has steadily risen in value from $8 billion to $40 billion over the last two decades. China, already the second largest economy in the world, is forecast to overtake the US by 2020.

“You can’t ignore such a shift in the balance of power – something like this only happens once every few centuries,” says Gupta. “However, in my opinion, we should look upon Asia not only as a huge market for Canadian producers, which is very important, but also as a source of talent, skills and ideas.”

“The global centre of gravity is shifting to Asia, and Canada must position itself accordingly,” adds Woo. “There is a huge role for the Jack Austin Centre and like institutions to produce research that can inform the expansion of our economic ties with Asian countries.”

As the centre looks to stimulate research in Canada-Asia business affairs, it will have a number of research projects ongoing at any one time. Current projects focus on the study of bilateral flows between Canada and Asia; understanding patterns of investments in Africa from Chinese companies; the role of state owned enterprises in foreign investments, particularly in resources sector; and an examination of new ways to integrate CSR practices into Asian companies where such practices are not as developed.

Using research to fight world poverty

One specific research project the centre is involved with represents for Gupta an opportunity to contribute to the fight to end world poverty.

The relevant statistics are alarming: some four billion people in the world live on less than $8 a day, of which some 60 percent reside in Asia; and more than one billion people survive on less than $1.25 a day. Approximately 70 percent of the population in South Asia, and 33 percent in East Asia live on less than $2 a day.

“The statistics got me thinking. Many of the communities in Asia aren’t benefitting from globalization and the rapid economic growth we have been witnessing in Asia,” says Gupta. “There has to be a better way of getting these communities into the global economy. The “traditional” solutions proposed by international institutions such as the World Bank and IMF haven’t worked for these communities so far, so how do we generate solutions for people at the base of the pyramid which are workable and sustainable?”

The research project focuses on communities living at the base of the pyramid (BOP). With an increasing realization that traditional approaches to economic development are not working for these communities, the research aims to develop theories to allow organizations to meet the needs of BOP segments profitably, sustainably, and in socially responsible ways.

The research began in early 2012 with the team interviewing NGOs and social entrepreneurs who have experience of working with BOP communities, in order to establish what approaches work. This period of data gathering will continue into next year, at which point student teams will be sent out to live in some of these communities in order to observe and gather further data.

The project, the result of a partnership between the centre and Indian multinational business technology company Infosys, is one that Gupta is particularly proud to be involved with. “I’m genuinely excited by this research and believe our team can contribute something useful to the world through it,” says Gupta. “This is an occasion where generating papers as an academic is secondary to the benefits the research can bring.”

Despite the progress the Jack Austin Centre has made since its inception, no one at the centre is getting carried away. “We see ourselves very much still as a startup right now,” says Gupta. “In a few years time, however, we will be, I hope, one of the leading authorities on Canada-Asia affairs – we will shape and dictate the nation’s research in this field. If Asia is to play a role in Canada’s economic future then we must be at the heart of facilitating this transformation.”