February 23, 2024

Canada’s research and innovation group chat needs colleges and institutes

What’s on my mind? With Pari Johnston

As our innovation minister likes to say, today’s research is tomorrow’s economy. Last year’s Report on the Federal Research Support System (“the Bouchard Report”) made it clear that Canada needs a more strategic, multi- and interdisciplinary approach to mobilize the federal research and innovation ecosystem to address the country’s – and the world’s – most pressing challenges.

At Nova Scotia Community College’s Centre of Geographic Sciences, it means using topo-bathymetric LiDAR systems to survey land and water surfaces. Then, partnering with 3D Wave Design, an Indigenous-owned and operated 3D animation and communications company, to turn that information into digital storytelling. 

It’s a perfect example of the future of challenge-driven research – mobilizing college and institute applied research expertise, their networks of partners across sectors, and state-of-the-art facilities to develop solutions for Canada’s biggest challenges. 

In the case of NSCC and 3D Wave Design, the resulting maps can help local First Nations communities and governments better model the impacts of climate change – like rising sea levels and fluvial flooding – and identify where to place wind turbines as we transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources.  

The time for colleges-led research is now 

We’re at an important turning point for college-and-institute-led research, with urgent demands to address big public policy questions – things like providing sustainable and affordable housing, ensuring food security, preparing for and preventing large natural disasters, designing cities and spaces that respect our environment, transitioning to clean energies, and taking care of an aging population. Each of these areas is a strategic opportunity for colleges and institutes to be a bigger part of the solution, mobilizing their collective strengths and value-add partnerships in service of Canada’s most pressing problems. 

Take healthcare, for example. At SAIT’s Centre for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems, researchers are working with the Stoney Nakoda First Nations and Alberta Health Services to develop a scalable drone fleet that can support medical delivery and amplify drone signals in remote areas. 

The immediate application of a project like this means that rural, remote, northern, and Indigenous communities have better, more reliable access to life-saving healthcare. With a wider lens, in a world where natural disasters occur more frequently and with greater intensity – just last year we saw Canada’s worst-ever wildfire season – this type of solution can be scaled to conduct hazard & risk assessments for emergency response, support first responders, and provide real-time intelligence for emergency decision makers. 

Global challenges are shared challenges

College and institute research intensity is growing at a rate of nearly 30% each year. In real numbers, that’s equal to more than 8,000 applied research projects (in 2021-2022) in areas like housing construction and advanced manufacturing, climate-smart agriculture and food production, and social innovation. That impact, relevance, and reach translates into real benefits for Canadians and for the long-term sustainability of Canadian industry. 

The other piece of the puzzle is that wicked problems cross borders. In a context of geopolitical disruption and the imperative of decarbonization, Canada’s open economy is evolving, industries and global supply chains are being redefined, and technologies like AI are accelerating the pace of change and shifting where business is done. 

Being globally competitive is a key driver of Canada’s prosperity, and college and institute applied research generates intellectual property that stays in the hands of Canadian industry partners, a unique advantage. Services like those offers by Durham College’s Office of Research Services, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship work with Canadian SMEs to help protect Canadian IP for Canadian economic benefit. For small businesses and entrepreneurs (the backbone of the Canadian economy), it’s a comprehensive suite of services that builds stronger, better prepared, and more competitive Canadian innovators. 

The recently launched federal Lab to Market program is another opportunity for college and institute networks to be strong partners in helping businesses get Canadian innovations to market at home and abroad. 

And prospects like Canada’s new associate member status in Horizon Europe – the world’s largest research and innovation funding program – present real opportunities for Canada’s colleges and institutes, connecting them with new partners working on shared problems. The same goes for strategic college engagement in the forward agenda of the International Development Research Centre and Canada’s science, technology and innovation agreements with key partners like the US, UK, Germany, France, Japan and the Indo-Pacific. 

A strong return on investment 

As leaders in applied research, we should be proud of where we’ve come and the impact we continue to have across the country. In many ways, the strengths that got us here are the ones that will prepare us for the future. But we can do more if we think differently about investing. 

I’m reminded of the Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI) led by Niagara College. It’s a model that brings institutions together – now with nine college and two university members involved – to better serve industry through a single point of access. With expertise ranging from automation and simulation to product testing and process optimization, the network has already worked with more than 300 industry partners on 460 projects in Southern Ontario with aspirations for national reach and scale. 

SONAMI is a microcosm of our larger network – one in which colleges and institutes support each other, share best practices to maximize return on investment, and explore new models that turn competitors into collaborators and play to unique advantages. The immediate impact strengthens businesses in the region; the bigger picture revolutionizes industry for a low-carbon future. 

We need to better tell our impact story

These are just some of the reflections I’ve had coming out of CICan’s National Applied Research Symposium, “Growing Impact”. As a new president, I was inspired to see over 160 college and institute applied research leaders and their partners in Ottawa sharing their visions – and their collaborative ethos – for greater scale and impact. 

We plan to do more to use CICan’s convening power to bring our sector together with other ecosystem partners to think creatively about solutions, to find shared purpose and reimagine research and innovation programming through an impact lens. In other words, to change what we thought we knew or thought was possible. 

Together we can change our impact narrative, so that when governments, research funders, economic modellers and policy makers are looking ten years down the road and planning for research and innovation-driven growth, we are the ones leading the group chat. 

We have too much to share and there is too much at stake.