Economic Development

Innovation will drive the green economic revolution

Economic Development

Innovation will drive the green economic revolution

Canada’s entrepreneurs are increasingly diverse and opening more businesses today than in the past decade. That’s according to a study by the Business Development Bank of Canada in 2019. Among its key findings: more women, newcomers and younger Canadians are creating new companies, and this burst of entrepreneurial activity is “changing the face of entrepreneurship” in Canada.

That’s certainly good news for the country’s economy. Even more promising perhaps was a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey last year that ranked Canada as the best country for entrepreneurs seeking to tackle social and environmental problems, such as climate change.

Supporting innovation and entrepreneurship is therefore essential, which underscores the importance of Zone Learning at Ryerson. It’s a model of experiential learning that enables participants to develop new products, explore innovative solutions or embark on ventures to change the world.

Two of Ryerson’s zones have been particularly critical to the success of companies that are poised to help individuals find greater agency in their green decision-making and accelerate the adoption of sustainable alternatives — factors that are fundamental to developing Canada’s green economy.

Turning green choices into informed decisions

What makes a product green? If it is labelled “all-natural,” “organic” or “eco-friendly,” do we know what that means? We might assume the product is helpful — or at least not harmful — to the planet in some way, but is it really?

And what about the company that makes the product? Is it trustworthy? If a product we’re considering comes at a premium, or a portion of its sale will somehow support a green initiative or social cause, how confident can we be that it’s not all just “greenwashing” to mislead consumers about a company’s environmental practices generally?

These are all legitimate concerns, and, in fact, they often prompt consumers to mistrust green labels or lose faith in brands.

For Akhil Sivanandan and Navodit Babel, who met while pursuing MBAs at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto in 2011, these were also the questions that informed their research to understand why more consumers aren’t making greener choices.

They concluded that three key issues prevent greater green adoption: price, understanding of a product’s environmental impact and the lack of an emotional connection.

That, in turn, led to the creation of Green Story, a data-driven online platform that generates eye-catching, interactive visuals to help consumers make informed — and confident — green purchasing decisions.

a diverse team smiling around a table with laptops open
Green Story team in action: target 1 billion greener decisions

It is the only solution of its kind in the world, and it received early help from Ryerson’s Social Ventures Zone (SVZ) — an incubation space that caters to aspiring changemakers.

“From mentorship to training and research support, the SVZ did a lot to ensure we were in a position to succeed,” says Sivanadan. “The team there helped us win new clients, grow our network, win grants and really get ready to scale up.”

We believe there is as much potential for us in almost every green industry, from foods to travel — you name it.
Akhil Sivanandan, Co-founder of Green Story

Since starting out in 2017, with Sivanadan at the helm as marketing lead and co-founder Babel guiding development, Green Story has focused on the eco-fashion industry. Today, it works with 80 brands in 15 countries.

In January 2020, the company partnered with thredUP, the world’s largest online consignment and thrift store, to launch a Fashion Footprint Calculator. Green Story’s work in developing the online tool drew attention from CNN Business, Fast Company and other media outlets.

Now, the company is looking at expanding its reach.

“Our visualization system has been tested by over 10 million consumers globally, so we know how to reach a green demographic,” Sivanadan explains. “We believe there is as much potential for us in almost every green industry, from foods to travel — you name it.”

Number of brands that Green Story works with across 15 countries

Indeed, as demand for greener products and green transparency increases, the company is well-positioned to be at the forefront of enabling consumers to know the true environmental story behind products and services they are evaluating, so they can identify with the choices they ultimately make.

To mount a serious defence against climate change over the next decade and beyond, arming consumers with this knowledge is key to instilling a culture of sustainability and to fostering environmental responsibility on a global scale.

Making EV charging available to everyone

Electric vehicles (EVs) can help save the planet by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. So, for all their green appeal, why aren’t more people buying or leasing them?

For both consumers and business customers, lack of exposure to the experience of driving an EV — let alone leasing or owning one — is a factor. So, too, is resistance to change.

When an EV is seriously considered as an option, concerns start to operate at a deeper level. They revolve around selection, price and range anxiety (the latter is a worry specific to EVs, but it can be regarded as an expression of durability or performance, which are measures for all products).

No less important for many potential EV owners is access to charging. That’s not an issue for those who live in single-family homes and can purchase a 40-amp charger for installation in their garage or driveway.

It’s a different story for those who live in urban multi-tenant settings, such as condos and apartment buildings, and operators of commercial office buildings, warehouses and depots, for example. There, electrical infrastructure upgrades can be prohibitively expensive and challenging to manage. The lack of suitable local charging options precludes investing in EVs.

underground parking lot with electric chargers
Six (6) SWTCH EV chargers in Ryerson’s new Daphne Cockwell Complex (DCC)

Enter SWTCH, a Toronto-based company that provides end-to-end electric vehicle charging and energy management solutions designed specifically for multi-unit residential and commercial buildings. Its smart EV charging platform “streamlines the charging experience for drivers while optimizing usage and revenue for building owners,” according to Thomas Martin, the company’s director of business development and a graduate of Ryerson’s Master of Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship program.

“Our technology is based on open communication standards to ensure scalable, future-proof solutions. Ultimately, our mission at SWTCH is to improve EV charging accessibility and ensure effective integration of EVs in our clean energy future,” he adds.

a closer up shot of electric chargers
Two (2) SWTCH EV chargers for shared use in uptown Toronto condo

Founded in 2016, SWTCH emerged from Ryerson’s Clean Energy Zone — an incubator focused on sustainable energy innovations, including electric vehicles, renewable energy, energy storage and distribution, microgrids and net-zero city building.

Number of homes SWTCH EV charging units are installed in multi-tenant residential, workplace and retail settings across North America

“The Clean Energy Zone gave SWTCH a home in its early development stage, along with all kinds of invaluable resources, including workshops, networking opportunities, industry partnerships and access to capital and talent,” Martin explains.

Now, according to Martin, SWTCH’s EV charging and energy management platform is fully commercialized, with 400-plus units deployed across more than 100 multi-tenant residential, workplace and retail settings in North America.

“By improving EV charging and energy management in urban multi-tenant settings, SWTCH is helping promote widespread EV adoption and ultimately contributing to the development of a cleaner transportation system.”

Given that transportation is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, the future impact of radically improved charging infrastructure is tantalizing. If enough people have access to such technology, EVs just might just help rescue our planet, after all.

Economic Development

The future of urban living is clean — and affordable

Economic Development

The future of urban living is clean — and affordable

Increasing access to affordable housing in urban markets and improving environmental sustainability are not usually part of the same conversation, but the subjects are in fact closely linked.

The construction and operation of buildings are responsible for roughly 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions, according to one estimate. The number is even higher in densely populated regions such as the Greater Toronto Area, where buildings generate as much as 45% of carbon that’s released into the atmosphere. There are costs attached to those numbers, and invariably they are passed along to consumers.

At the same time, there is a need for housing solutions that address scarcity of supply by means other than suburban sprawl or urban high-rise construction.

Through innovative research and ambitious pilot projects, Ryerson is at the forefront of finding ways to address those concerns.

of our greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to the construction and operation of buildings

Home, sweet alternative home

Location, location, location. This mantra of the real estate industry persists, but it’s no longer the leading factor in determining the appeal of a residential property. Canadians who are demanding action to address climate change are also looking to their homes to provide part of the solution. And, price is still very much part of the equation for buyers and renters.

But increasingly, such considerations can lead to unwelcome trade-offs. A lower-priced, comfortable home built to contemporary standards in the suburbs? Newer but more expensive in-fill or a high-rise apartment or condominium in the city?

For architect and researcher Cheryl Atkinson, another viable option strikes a balance between the desire for urban living, a low carbon footprint and affordability: housing that uses eco-friendly materials and building processes along with net-zero design targets in carbon emissions, energy use, toxic construction materials, landfill waste and cost premium compared with homes built using traditional supplies and methods.

interior of a wood panelled house with sloped ceiling
The interior of ZeroHouse is entirely clad an FSC certified Canadian maple panelling

ZeroHouse, a partnership between Ryerson’s Architectural Science Department and the Endeavour Centre, is novel not just for its design but also the team behind it. In addition to Atkinson, professor of engineering Alan Fung and professor of entrepreneurship and strategy Philip Walsh collaborated on this solution to address sustainable urban housing.

The project tapped into a growing opportunity for what’s referred to as missing-middle housing: duplexes, stacked row units and bungalow courts that sit in the middle of a spectrum between detached single-family homes and mid- to high-rise apartment or condominium towers.

Moreover, they’re intended to be built on land formerly occupied by low-density structures — one storey storage buildings and auto body shops , for example — the neglected spaces in existing urban neighbourhoods.

Number of weeks required for on-site construction of ZeroHouse

“There are lots of under-utilized sites for adding mid-rise density within existing urban footprints, if we were more clever about it,” says Atkinson.

“While this project was designed as urban infill for busy arterial areas that border existing low-rise neighbourhoods in Toronto, the same construction strategies could be scaled up or down in a variety of locales in other cities.”

The beauty and benefits of green building

Although only a single unit was built, the ZeroHouse prototype was conceived as the upper unit of a stacked townhouse with ground-floor commercial space that could exist as part of a mid-density urban development.

“It was also really important to me as a designer to integrate beauty into the mix,” Atkinson explains. “Elegant and beautiful mid-rise housing is the urban fabric of our great global cities. Housing should be worthy of design attention.”

Indeed, the 1,100-square-foot, wood-framed structure features clean minimalist lines and details both inside and out. Birch ply interior finishes and flooring made with recycled ash provide a soothing ambience within the airtight and highly insulated enclosure. State-of-the-art active and passive systems, including roof-integrated photovoltaics, add to the dwelling’s futurist vibe.

a woman and a man at a desk surrounded by architecture model houses
Cheryl Atkinson, Associate Professor, Architectural Science, collaborating with Matthew Ferguson, architecture student on ZeroHouse

As a proof-of-concept project, ZeroHouse also demonstrated the advantages of using prefabrication as a method of construction. Floor, wall and roof sections were built separately in a makeshift factory setting, reducing total construction time on site to just four weeks, compared with the 20 to 50 needed — depending on the season, materials used and site location — for conventional builds.

Only a day was needed to assemble those pieces, with pre-installed windows and doors, on a temporary foundation. Another six days were used to install prefabricated stairs and interior finishes, roofing and exterior cladding.

While this project was designed as urban infill for busy arterial areas that border existing low-rise neighbourhoods in Toronto, the same construction strategies could be scaled up or down in a variety of locales in other cities.
Cherly Atkinson, Associate Professor, Architectural Science and ZeroHouse designer

Along with that efficiency, a striking outcome was how little waste was sent to a landfill as unrecyclable: just eight kilograms, contained in a few garbage bags, as opposed to 1000 times that produced with typical house construction. That’s partly a result of design and the greater degree of precision that could be achieved in a controlled factory setting for fabrication.

Both of those factors were reflected in the building’s subsequent fate. It was disassembled and reassembled several times, including for a brief stint as a showpiece exhibit outside the 2017 Expo for Design, Innovation & Technology in Toronto. It now has a private owner and is lived in permanently in southwestern Ontario, although Atkinson and her colleagues continue to monitor and study its performance while developing and promoting the concept.

“It’s still getting attention from developers, home owners and municipalities interested in changing the status quo,” Atkinson says.

In fact, scalability is fundamental to the potential ZeroHouse represents. It’s precisely the type of urban housing solution that can be exported and expanded upon across the globe. As housing prices soar in densely populated urban centres around the world, sustainable alternatives to traditional single dwelling homes are key to ensuring high livability standards and mitigating environmental impacts.

Economic Development

Sustainable skills and digital literacy will revolutionize the workforce

Economic Development

Sustainable skills and digital literacy will revolutionize the workforce

Canada’s economy is evolving rapidly — and not solely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. That seismic upheaval added to other factors such as technological disruption, demographic shifts, immigration, climate change and geopolitical uncertainties that were already altering the nature of work in fundamental ways across the country.

The pandemic has, however, intensified concerns around the viability of some sectors of the economy and what comes next for many workers, while highlighting an essential point: Canadians need to feel confident about the knowledge and skills they have to succeed, even as the labour market continues to shift dramatically.

As Canada’s leader in career-oriented education, Ryerson is proud to play a lead role in initiatives focused on preparing Canadians for the workforce of today — and tomorrow.

Building the world’s most highly skilled workforce

Canadians have attained their highest standard of training in the country’s history. We are among the most educated people in the world, and are fortunate that Canada is also a magnet for international talent and immigration from around the globe.

“Canadians, and this wonderful country we share, have an automatic competitive advantage,” explains Pedro Barata, executive director of the Future Skills Centre (FSC), a partnership funded by the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Program and led by Ryerson, alongside The Conference Board of Canada and non-profit research organization Blueprint.”

“However as we move into pandemic recovery, where skill building plays an essential part, we must stay responsive to the changing environment and continue to work hard,” says Barata.

The country continues to grapple with the consequences of a pandemic, but it remains heartening in the larger context of anticipating what the Canadian economy and people who participate in it will need 10 and 20 years from now, while at the same time helping to address the very real challenges we are facing today.

a man in an industrial setting
Sanjiv Uthayakumar, featured here, is part of the manufacturing sector for the Future Skills Centre

Where those two spheres of interest can be seen to overlap is in some of what the Future Skills Centre has accomplished since it was launched in February 2019. Two initiatives in particular are worthy of note.

FSC has provided funding to a new training program to help displaced workers in Alberta’s energy sector transition to the tech sector, which is flourishing and yet has a shortage of digitally skilled workers. Meanwhile in Ontario, it has funded a program to help laid-off auto workers train for jobs in the mold-making and injection-molding trades.

Investment made by the Future Skills Centre for 30 projects to fill skills gaps in the post-pandemic period

The overarching theme is this: there is a need to help workers across a variety of industries shift to training that will lead to success in careers that are — or will be — in demand.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are a young person just entering the labour market, a newcomer to Canada bringing your own particular talent to our economy, a mid-career worker looking for a change or someone who’s moving up in their organization, you will be looking for solutions to help you navigate the future,” Barata explains.

“Our goal should be to take advantage of the assets we have and build the world’s most highly skilled workforce. That means a workforce that is a global leader when it comes to foundational skills and digital literacy, a workforce that is agile and can respond to the shifting needs of employers and industry, and a workforce that is comfortable and confident in a context of rapid change.”

Recent history has shown just how important these three pillars are, but looking beyond the pandemic, the importance of a nimble and skilled workforce is crucial not only future-proof the economy, but to provide the people who comprise it with the agency and confidence to pursue fulfilling careers.

Our goal should be to take advantage of the assets we have and build the world’s most highly skilled workforce.
Pedro Barata, Executive Director of the Future Skills Centre

Closing the skills gap in cybersecurity

Technology permeates almost every aspect of our personal and professional lives. Virtually every industry in the public and private sectors is affected by digital transformation. Data collection has become an almost inescapable part of daily life. Together, those facts underscore why the importance of protecting our digital infrastructure and data has never been greater.

And yet, Canada is facing a significant talent shortage to meet a growing range of cybersecurity needs.

It is estimated an 8,000 additional positions must be filled by next year alone to address a spectrum of gaps that exist within today’s cybersecurity landscape. That number is sure to climb as the nature of work evolves and more companies and organizations pivot to digital-first — and, in many cases, digital-only — business models.

a woman in a hijab smiling in an office setting
Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst seeks to train workers from demographic groups that are currently underrepresented in cybersecurity

At the same time, those pressures also present a series of opportunities. Cybersecurity-related spending is on track to surpass $133 billion by 2022. Canadian companies have an opportunity to compete for a share of that market, but they require support and access to resources and mentorship.

To meet that need, Ryerson along with the federal government, Rogers Communications, the Royal Bank of Canada and the City of Brampton together announced a $30 million investment to support the launch of the university’s Rogers Cybersecure Catalyst in 2019.

The not-for-profit national centre for innovation and collaboration, which is owned and operated by the university, has a mandate to promote the growth of Canadian companies and help create skilled jobs by providing training to workers from demographic groups that are underrepresented in cybersecurity.

Estimated Cybersecurity-related spending is set to surpass this amount by 2022

Its role also includes support for applied research and development, as well as raising awareness of issues around cybersecurity and promoting best practices.

“The Catalyst takes a holistic approach to the cybersecurity mandate with a view towards both the short-term objectives as well as a long-term vision for where we need to evolve and the ongoing work that will be required to stay ahead,” explains Charles Finlay, the centre’s executive director.

Earlier this year, in partnership with Ryerson’s DMZ — the world’s top-ranked university incubator and one of 10 experiential learning zones on campus for startups, causes, projects or ventures — the centre expanded its commitment to making a difference by launching the Catalyst Cyber Accelerator, Canada’s first commercial program specifically designed for scale-up companies in cybersecurity and related fields.

“Cybersecurity depends on collaboration, support, mentorship and access to networks within academic, industry and public sectors. For those reasons and more, the Zone Learning model lends itself to the cybersecurity landscape quite well,” Finlay adds.

With new and emerging cyber risks growing daily, the Catalyst and its companion accelerator are preparing for the future, while working to close the skills gap in cybersecurity with more diverse talent today.