16 December 2008

Infrastructure or, The City We Want

In catching up on the past couple of weeks, I've been reviewing my notes from the Toronto Forum for Global Cities, held 8-9 December. A key focus of this event was public infrastructure spending, certainly a hot topic in these dire economic times, but also relevant to GBC's new campus plans. Against the backdrop of economic gloom, infrastructure spending creates jobs and the necessary physical space for future productivity. Commensurate with the need to update and prepare our physical resources for the future is the need to prepare what I earlier called the infrastructure of the mind: readying the future workforce for an active role as "demanders of innovation" within the Innovation Agenda.

Toronto Mayor David Miller spoke about the importance of the public library as a place for incidental education, and an important locus for immigrant populations to learn and access information resources. I was reminded of Manual Castells's work on the "space of flows" and the role of information and communications technology (ICT) in essentially shrinking and linking the globally networked world. The public library system, as a basic public infrastructure, enables the formation of social capital and the integration of new immigrant populations into the local body politic. This social capital is translated into economic productivity as these new populations integrate within the local environment while simultaneously changing the local environment to reflect new perspectives. This is an important driver of innovation - incremental social change which has economic implications. This environment of social capital formation emerges from the physical infrastructure of the public library - the basis for 21st century social and economic productivity. I'm filling in much of the subtext to Miller's speech, though he did end by saying "Cities are our future - the creative economy, research, immigrants - all come together in the city." The creative economy, an allusion to Richard Florida's work, is the purview of GBC's role in preparing graduates for future workplace demands. As I have said earlier, Innovation literacy forms the cornerstone of this demand.

Gary Doer, Premier of Manitoba, also spoke at the Forum of the need to invest in education and training infrastructure, particularly in colleges where there is more capability to fill the demand for highly qualified and skilled people. Sandra Pupatello, Ontario Minister of International Trade and Investment, echoed this, and reiterated the Innovation Agenda that the Ontario government is "moving at the speed of business." This means mobilizing all government levels and departments to be responsive to industry.

I liken this to the concept of a virtual research cluster and the "collaborate to compete model." Regionally focused innovation strategies work because they pool resources from disparate sources so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Balkanization is not the answer, especially in a recession. This is an opportunity for all of us engaged in the R&D value or innovation chain to foster improved social and economic productivity by helping industries avoid market failure while we reposition our infrastructure to advance things like the green economy and sustainability.

01 December 2008

Polytechnics Canada Research Showcase a Success

The Third Annual Polytechnics Canada Science and Technology Showcase was held last Friday at Sheridan. The theme of this year's conference was "Creating and Maintaining Sustainable Environments". Presentations from all seven Polytechnics outlined important work in the green economy, and student poster presentations showcased innovations in curricula. GBC students in the School of Design won an award for their poster on Road Ecology. The Proceedings are available online.

Common themes from all speakers included capacity development for sustainable development, and innovation literacy - fostering an innovation mindset in our graduates to participate proactively in the emergence of the green economy. For example, where SAIT is working on innovative building envelopes as part of sustainable construction practices, their students gain valuable experience in working not just on emergent technologies and building practices, but in (re)thinking how we build in the first place.

Other common themes included customization - of power grids, landfills, homes and human interfaces, and how incremental innovation leads to the adaptation and adoption of new technologies and practices commensurate with the development of new ideas.

Bill Mantel, Director, Commercialization Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation gave a closing address on open innovation, and how Ontario is fostering an "innovation ecosystem." The ecology of innovation is an important concept that supports the notion of complementarity, and the role of college and polytechnic applied research has in the overall R&D continuum. The ecosystem metaphor is very apt, and we would do well to remember that a healthy ecosystem is determined by the overall health of its constituent parts. Mantel spoke about how we are moving in Ontario to a more market-focused innovation system where our students enter the workforce as "demanders of innovation." Creating these "demanders" is the purview of GBC's Research Commercialization and Innovation program. Innovation literacy is the cornerstone of this demand.

In times such as these with the economic downturn, many commentators are calling for spending on infrastructure as a way to stimulate economic growth while investing in the future. Similarly, we must invest in the "infrastructure of the mind," and create graduates from college and Polytechnic programs that promote a sustainable environment for applied research that supports environmental sustainability.