Polytechnics key to climate agenda

Less than a year ago, thousands of protesters marched through the downtown Ottawa streets demanding climate action, while hundreds more watched through their office windows. Today, with offices empty and large gatherings restricted, the global pandemic has grabbed the headlines and our collective attention is focused elsewhere. It remains to be seen whether climate change will take a backseat to economic recovery and other urgencies of the day, as it has so many times before.

We have reason to be hopeful. When everyone was told to stay home, people in cities around the world commented on improved air quality. Many have identified bike lanes and wider sidewalks as alternatives to crowded public transit – an eco-friendlier solution than more parking spaces. In conversations about recovery, there is a sense it must be tied to broader climate change ambitions. Yet, with governments facing competing priorities, sustained progress will clearly rely on leaders from all sectors of the economy. Canada’s polytechnics are already out of the gate.

At the intersection of talent development and business innovation, polytechnic institutions are addressing environmental sustainability in three connected ways:

  • As publicly funded exemplars of net-zero and eco-friendly buildings, behaviours and experimentation,
  • As hubs for the development of “green skills” among the thinkers and doers who will drive our sustainability  agenda, and
  • As innovation intermediaries, helping businesses rethink their processes, products and systems and adopt new technology.

As both magnets for next-generation talent and pillars within their communities, polytechnics are leading by example. They are adopting sustainability strategies that target the entire operation of their campuses, including net-zero infrastructure, zero-waste facilities and the adoption of eco-friendly technologies. Polytechnics are integrating environmental considerations across all aspects of their operations, not just preparing learners for a sustainable future, but living it themselves.

And, there’s more to come. In 2021, George Brown will begin construction on The Arbour, Ontario’s first mass-timber, low-carbon institutional building. This energy-efficient 10-storey building will use passive energy strategies and carbon-free energy production to address operational needs. With an innovative mix of passive and active climate control systems, The Arbour will require little additional fuel for much of the year. Natural ventilation using operable windows and dual solar chimneys will allow the building to “breathe.”

One of the benefits of environmentally friendly campuses is that students see climate action up close. Canada’s economy will need a workforce equipped with the skills necessary to operate and install alternative energy grids, maintain and repair fleets of electric vehicles and implement the most up-to-date retrofit and green building techniques. Canada’s polytechnics are committed to developing a talent pipeline with these skills and the many others necessary to transition to a green economy. Today’s polytechnic students are developing a sustainability mindset that is open to innovation and ready for collaborative problem-solving.

For example, the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Integrated Water Management program focuses on the skills required to identify local solutions to global water issues. The first of its kind in Canada, the program emphasizes water monitoring program development, data analysis, project management, site assessment and emergency preparedness, among other competencies. Students develop specialized applied knowledge by completing a capstone research project in either water environmental technologies or advanced industry applications.

An essential element of accomplishing Canada’s environmental goals and ambitions will be reaching beyond the technology, systems and processes on which we now rely. Pragmatic technology- and innovation-based solutions will be critical additions to carbon taxes and other market-based levers.

As innovation intermediaries, Canada’s polytechnics possess the significant applied research capacity essential to implementing climate-focused technologies and processes. They are both living laboratories for sustainability and hubs for environmentally focused applied research. Polytechnics are recruiting experts to drive a sustainability research agenda, mobilizing knowledge so that best practices can be shared and scaled. They are helping organizations of all sizes adopt, implement and commercialize new solutions to reduce our carbon footprint, setting the stage for wider adoption of what works best.

One such example is happening right here in Ottawa. In partnership with Ottawa’s Glebe Community Centre, Algonquin College’s Construction Research Centre recently undertook a project to analyze and reduce carbon emissions for the Centre’s 100-year old building. Existing energy data was supplemented by thermal imaging to survey the condition of the building envelope and develop a building information model to produce energy simulations. The model laid the groundwork for cost- and resource-efficient solutions to limit carbon emissions of one of the city’s heritage buildings.

We know that environmental action will require attention through the current crisis and many other challenges to come, through successive mandates and successive governments. As applied research hubs, curators of workforce-relevant skills and leaders within their communities, polytechnics will be important contributors over the long haul.

About the Author

Sarah Watts-Rynard, Chief Executive Officer at Polytechnics Canada

Sarah Watts-Rynard joined Polytechnics Canada as Chief Executive Officer in July 2018. Her background is in marketing communications, advocacy and non-profit management, including eight years focused on the important role tradespeople play in the Canadian economy. Sarah is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades and Technology (WinSETT Centre) and sits on the Boards of the CWB Welding Foundation and the Canadian Club of Ottawa.