A group of thought leaders put their heads together in Toronto recently to address one of the biggest challenges Canada will face in the next half-century.
According to new projections, Canada will be home to 50 million people by 2050. By the same year, the federal government has promised, along with more than 120 other countries, to transition to a net-zero emission economy in an effort to fight global climate change.
Canada is “good at the science,” but lags behind in its ability to take tech to the market.
The CityAge conference, held on April 26 in Toronto, brought together experts from a range of sectors to address this challenge and discuss how Canada will be able to house an additional 15 million people while also cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. The role of technology took centre stage, but how important it will be in meeting these goals was a matter of debate amongst the speakers.
The day kicked off with a panel on innovation in the housing industry—a sector that will be essential to reaching the 2050 goal. But with a long track record of underinvestment, a deep labour shortage, and a large proportion of workers expected to retire over the next 20 years, the industry has, according to Jag Sharma, CEO of Toronto Community Housing (TCHC), “not enough everything.” On top of this, he said, construction is one of the least digitized sectors in Canada, at a time where technology and innovation are needed for growth.
Speaking on the same panel, CEO of Promise Robotics, Ramtin Atlar, believes his company can make a difference on these issues. Harnessing state-of-the-art automation, his company claims its robots will be able to frame a house in a day—a task that can take five to eight weeks using traditional labour. From his perspective, this type of innovation is long overdue in the construction industry, noting that Europe has been using similar technology for years already. Canada is “good at the science,” he said, but lags behind in its ability to take tech to the market. As the country looks to stay competitive in a new digital economy, Ramtin argued, the sector needs to be investing in these types of technologies.
Fellow panellist Peter Hass, associate partner at Maverix Private Equity, echoed the sentiment that tech can help unlock the housing industry. His company recently backed Miovision, a Kitchener-based startup that uses cameras to collect and analyse traffic data across cities. In Hass’s view, tools like these will give cities the data to plan better, increase density in existing neighbourhoods, and create walkable communities that still allow traffic to move. This will allow them to grow without adding so significantly to greenhouse gas emissions.
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However, the pressure to build housing quickly is growing. Ontario’s recent Bill 23 sets new goals for housing construction, accelerating the province’s previous targets by roughly 20 years. This is compounded by the fact that construction has long sales cycles, which make it difficult to find companies that can scale quickly. Several panellists expressed that tech can’t solve these problems on its own, and instead, coalitions between multiple actors—government, the private sector, and community organizations—will be needed.
In a discussion on the future of electric vehicles in Canada, Ehren Cory, CEO of the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB), articulated how partnerships between technology and government can help Canada meet its goals. One example is the CIB’s recent $220-million CAD investment in the Quebec-based EV-charging company Flo. This is intended to kick off the largest deployment of EV chargers in Canada, doubling the number of ports across the country.
Cory emphasized that the CIB is designed to meet challenges like expanding EV-charging infrastructure: situations where there is commercial opportunity, but too much risk for entrepreneurs and private capital to tolerate. Government bodies like the CIB can step in. The trick is aligning public goals with technological opportunity, he said, which in this case is reducing GHG emissions. “The chargers are just the hardware,” he said.
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While speaking on the second panel of the day, Shoshanna Saxe, an associate professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto and a Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Infrastructure, took a different position and said she’s less willing to view technology as a panacea. She doesn’t believe we can “innovate our way out” of the housing and climate crises, and instead challenged the audience to take a sobering look at the way we approach economic growth and city-building in Canada.
There is a lot to accomplish in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but the good news, Saxe said, is we “know how to do this.” For starters, we can scrap the proposed expansion of Highway 413 in Ontario, take care of our existing infrastructure, densify our cities, and stop “paying for growth with growth.” She was referring to the practice of collecting funds from developers to pay for municipal infrastructure, instead of increasing taxes. These costs are typically passed on to buyers through increased housing prices, and so do little to alleviate the affordability crisis amid growing population and housing demand.
We can’t “innovate our way out” of the housing and climate crises.
– Shoshanna Saxe, University of Toronto
Rather than focussing on technology, Saxe argued, the quickest and most impactful solutions can come from simply adjusting existing approaches. Innovation isn’t always technological and existing spaces can be updated to work for new purposes. Fellow panellist Kealy Dedman, Commissioner of Public Works for Peel Region, provided a good example: retrofitting party rooms in condos as co-working spaces for remote workers. Changes like this can make smaller spaces more liveable while also cutting commuting emissions in aggregate.
Closing out the day with a panel on the future of the region’s urban design, Derek Goring, Executive Vice-President of Development at Northcrest Developments, similarly noted that in addition to the “hardware,” or technological updates that are required in Canada, there are just many social ones, or “software,” updates needed as well.
Social infrastructure like schools, public squares, community centres, and parks will be vital in our effort to reach the province’s target of 1.5 million new homes, Goring said. Investments like these also help raise Canada’s social capital—building trust, interpersonal relationships and shared identity, which will help communities withstand the external shocks that climate change may bring.
Goring’s comments provided a fitting summary for the day: a combination of technology driven innovation and human partnership will be needed for Canada to thrive in the second half of the 21st century.
Image courtesy of CityAge