UBC and SFU must play a key role in developing Vancouver's smart city jobs plan
In the coming days CityCaucus.com will explore the idea of Vancouver becoming a "smart city". This three-part series will look at the characteristics of smart cities and how Vancouver is well positioned to become one. Here is our first installment:
Over the last three years Mayor Gregor Robertson and his Vision caucus have been pushing forward with a so-called “green” agenda. Their efforts helped to spawn a series of new policies related to everything from backyard chickens to taxpayer subsidies for new solar panel installations.
As for whether all this green talk will turn into real economic growth remains to be seen, but you can place me squarely in the skeptical category. My skepticism is based on the fact that Robertson had pledged during the 2008 election campaign he would create 20,000 new green jobs by 2020. That commitment has subsequently been significantly watered down.
Pursuing a “green” jobs agenda these days does appear to be a tad flavor of the month. Each day it seems yet another city is pronouncing they too want to become the greenest in the world. Despite all the spin, the reality is a number of cities were pursuing an eco-friendly agenda well before Vancouver re-branded itself as a “green” city.
In my opinion, if the Mayor and council were genuinely interested in creating high paying family-supporting jobs, they’d be much better off focusing on transforming Vancouver into a “smart” city.
By focusing more on brain power and innovation the city could reap huge economic rewards. This strategy would also allow it to better take advantage of two world class facilities - UBC and SFU - that are literally at Vancouver's doorstep.
So what does a smart city look like and what are some of the common characteristics? And why would becoming a smart city play to our strengths and provide us with an edge over our competitors? Let me explain.
A smart city is one that not only develops the world’s best and brightest minds, but it also becomes a magnet for new talent as well. These are the kind of people that have the potential to develop the next Google or find a cure for Alzheimer’s.
A smart city capitalizes on the partnership opportunities that exist between itself and the people who work and study at its post-secondary institutions.
In the case of Vancouver, it must work harder to link its economic strategy with the cutting edge research taking place at UBC, SFU, BCIT and the various colleges. In other words, it has to do a better job of identifying and transitioning the research taking place in our labs into the local economy.
Instead of planning costly trade missions overseas, perhaps the Vancouver Economic Development Commission (VEDC) might want to first spend a few days with some of the future entrepreneurs located on campus. These are the people who are already living here and stand a good chance of becoming the next mid-size and large employers of tomorrow.
To date the VEDC has proven to be less than stellar when it comes to finding ways of better integrating with our post secondary institutions. That's why they should focus less time chasing elusive green jobs and spend more time working with world-class institutions like UBC and SFU to see what it would take to get more start-ups in the city.
For example, if the VEDC were truly focused on transforming Vancouver into a smart city, they would be chomping at the bit regarding Premier Christy Clark's latest initiative. She announced the BC government is planning to increase the number of foreign students at our post-secondary institutions by 50% over the next 5 years.
A smart city knows that developing strategies that attract international students helps to boost their local economy. It also has the added benefit of exposing your region to a segment of the world's population that might eventually want to call your city home.
The numbers tell the story: international education is a big and growing business, with 2.8 million international students worldwide in 2007 and an expected 7 million by 2025. This growth is being driven by the fast growing economies of China, India, and other South and East Asian countries, all key Canadian trade partners.
In Canada, international education exports injected an estimated $6.5 billion into the economy in 2008, more than exports of either coniferous lumber or coal. Over $300 million annually in government revenue and 83,000 Canadian jobs are directly attributable to international education, which is now Canada’s number one export to China (12% of all exports valued at roughly $1.3 billion annually); number two export to South Korea; and number four to India. And, for every ten international students in Canada, roughly five family members and friends visit as tourists, injecting an additional $285 million into the economy and sustaining over 5,000 tourism jobs.
When it comes to capitalizing on the knowledge economy, few have done it better than Australia. With a population roughly 2/3 of Canada’s, it already derives $15.5 billion in revenue from education exports each year, employing more than 125,000 people and making education the number one service export, ahead of even tourism.
International students already account for roughly 20% of Australian university campuses, roughly twice the Canadian percentage. By deploying a national strategy, Australia has built an enviable brand presence as a destination for international education.
The Globe and Mail recently did a series of stories on smart cities and here is an excerpt that helps to highlight why focusing on international students is a winning strategy:
International immigration has played a crucial and often overlooked role in the United States’ economic success, says Joe Cortright, president and chief economist of Impresa, a Portland, Ore.-based consulting firm that specializes in metropolitan economies and knowledge-based industries.
No doubt. Between 1995 and 2005, according to a Duke University study, 25.3 per cent of U.S. engineering and technology startups had at least one foreign-born founder.
Meanwhile, U.S. metropolitan areas with the highest levels of educational attainment – a key driver of prosperity – are home to the most immigrants, Mr. Cortright says. “Places like New York, San Francisco and Miami all have very large immigrant populations, and a very high fraction of their well-educated population [was] born abroad.”
If we play our cards right, we clearly have the opportunity of doing even better than the Australians. And the prime beneficiary of this strategy would obviously be Vancouver.
In part II of our Smart City vs. Green City series, we’ll look at some of the other policies Vancouver might want to adopt if it wants to use brain power and innovation as a catalyst for future economic growth.