A new kind of partnership for livable cities

By Steven Murphy, President, University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Leo Groarke, President, Trent University

“There’s nothing efficient about innovation,” according to influential business and marketing author Simon Sinek, and it’s hard to disagree.

In Canada and across the globe, innovation is seen as the cornerstone of success in the new economy. It’s the must-have ingredient to enable companies, organizations and the wider economy to flourish.

Sinek’s point is that valuable innovation comes not simply from inspiration and creativity, but also from a structure of planning and understanding what it is you want to achieve with your innovative eureka moments. In other words, innovation needs a whole lot of perspiration to create something of value. Ideas without a business plan are a hallucination.

Building the right structure to allow innovation to flourish is perhaps the hardest part of the puzzle. In Ontario and Canada there are networks of funding bodies, policy groups, consultancies and bricks-and-mortar innovation hubs that all play a valuable role in unlocking that secret formula that fosters innovation with tangible results. Their work proves there’s much more to the innovation process than venture capital funding.

We believe there’s an innovative and ambitious model developing here in Ontario that could become an effective template for innovating in ways that grow the economy, drive social improvements and lead to a better future for all. It involves municipalities and their local postsecondary institutions coming together to collaborate on solutions to difficult urban challenges.

This kind of collaboration is not new, especially in our larger cities, but it’s evolving from what were previously more informal arrangements between town and gown into official initiatives with clear goals and a common purpose. At a time when Ontario and Canada become ever more urbanized, and as cities expand into suburbs and suburbs into exurbs, a common purpose in solving the social and economic challenges of urban existence is vital.

The Teaching City initiative is an example of this model.

Set up by the City of Oshawa in partnership with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, Trent University, Durham College, the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering and the Canadian Urban Institute, the Teaching City is a living laboratory for urban research, where the partners will collaborate on innovative solutions to any major issue that fast-growing cities like Oshawa might face: traffic congestion, transit, affordable housing, sustainability, water management, and quality of life.

It’s the right time for a new approach, as Oshawa moves away from a blue-collar manufacturing city dominated by General Motors toward a modern, service-economy city. Its job growth rate was the highest in Ontario in 2016 and it has almost $4-billion of economic development projects in the pipeline, but that rapid expansion can only be sustained if the city’s services and infrastructure keep pace and make it an attractive community in which to live, as well as work.

Similar city-campus partnerships are spreading across the province:

  • Peterborough has joined forces with Trent University to begin work this year on Cleantech Commons, an-85-acre space on the Trent campus that will house a green technology research and innovation centre. Enterprises and other tenants will rub shoulders with Trent’s researchers and students, working on biotech, agri-business, environmental and similar projects designed to drive growth in the local economy.
  • Kingston last year signed a partnership with Queen’s University to work together on projects to drive innovation and economic development and aid the city in its goal to encourage more young people, including Queen’s graduates, to stay and work in Kingston.
  • Thunder Bay has recently signed a deal with Lakehead University, as has the Town of Lincoln with Brock University, to pursue joint initiatives that facilitate the sharing of campus expertise with the municipality and local employers to help boost the economy and improve services.

These partnerships  demonstrate knowledge exchange at its best: municipalities will benefit more directly from the expertise and knowledge in their local universities, while universities will welcome the experiential learning opportunities for their students to get involved in city projects – a win-win at a time when expanding real-life, work-related experience for undergraduates is a priority for Ontario universities as well as the employers that need talent with the practical skills for the gig economy.

These initiatives will be particularly valuable to smaller cities, especially in more remote parts of the province, which are looking for new ways of stimulating economic activity and reversing the brain drain of their talented young people. Universities are already major employers in such communities, and now they can partner to unleash their campus-based knowledge and expertise for wider economic benefit.

Such are the complexities of our constantly changing world that no organization, public or private, can afford to work in silos. The sharing of ideas and talent is key to solving problems and creating a better future − and university-municipal partnerships have great potential to do this in ways that are innovative. And, dare we say it, efficient.