Part II: Smart cities focus on attracting and retaining brainpower

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


Vancouver's convention centre should play a key role in its smart city strategy

In part one of our "Smart City" series, we discussed how it's becoming rather common for cities to pursue a "green" agenda. We also raised the issue of how better integrating a city's economic development strategy with its post-secondary institutions can be a winning proposition.

In this post I'd like to explore further what Vancouver could do to transform itself into a smart city and by doing so create thousands of new jobs in the process.

We all know that tourism plays a big role in Vancouver's economy. It's a result of senior levels of government investing billions to construct new convention centres and meeting facilities throughout the city. Despite all this infrastructure, during the slower winter months many of our top-rated hotels remain at below capacity.

If Vancouver wants to become a smart city, it should work to meld it's tourism industry with its local academic institutions. In other words, the city should develop a new academic tourism strategy. The plan would would aim to significantly increase the number of academic conventions coming to the city each year.

The Convention Industry Council (CIC) estimated that conferences and conventions contributed $122.31B to the US GDP in 2004; making the industry the 29th most important contributor. It is probably safe to assume that conferences and conventions are proportionally more important to Canada’s and especially Vancouver’s economies.

Almost nine million overnight visitors came to Vancouver in 2007. They spent an estimated $4.6 billion or about $517 each. In the same year, meetings and conventions accounted for more than 1.9 million hotel room nights and $585 million in spending. Conference attendees spent an estimated $1,171 each during their 3.81 day stay, or almost double that of the average visitor to Vancouver.

According to a 2001 study conducted by the UK National Tourism Boards, academics spend more in the local economy than any other category of tourists.

Academics spent an average of £548 for travel and £201 per day while away from home. By comparison, business tourists spent an average of £355 for their travel and £140 per day on local activities.

Although it wasn't referenced in the study, I'm told academic tourists also generally arrive earlier and stay longer at each host city. As a general rule, they also tend to bring at least one or more family members with them.

Should Vancouver's smart city strategy prove successful, just imagine what some of the other benefits might be in the long-term. Not only would the world's best and brightest minds visit tourists sites, they would also be directly exposed to local researchers and business ventures in our region. It's been demonstrated that the development of these types of networks can foster meaningful partnerships years after a convention has wrapped up.

As you can see, it makes business sense to attract thousands more international students to local post-secondary institutions as well as implementing a made-in-Vancouver academic tourism strategy.

Now if you want to see an example of a jurisdiction that is actively pursuing a smart city agenda, check out Berlin. Some consider it a model of how municipalities should work more closely with universities to generate jobs. If we were to apply the Berlin model in Vancouver, he is what it might look like:

Designate entrepreneurial technology parks:

  • Universities would house major research programs (SFU, UBC, BCIT) on-site. The idea is to have a good cohort of graduate students from key programs within the technology park.
  • Third party connectors would locate there (IRAP, NSERC, Wavefront, etc). These are a source of R&D funds.
  • Sign a deal with venture capitalists to be present on-site. Or you could simply develop an alliance with venture capitalists to run activities on-site (business competitions, venture capital awareness workshops, etc)
  • New firms would be invited to have space on-site at a favourable price. This is either for a fixed period (first three years) or until they have revenue, or a combination of both.
  • Some mature firms are also be invited to have small facilities on-site. Their selling point is that they will know what new things are coming out.

One thing Berlin likes is all the Federal/State money that flows into these technology parks. But even more, companies want to locate in Berlin, whether start-ups or mature, to get access to these parks. if Vancouver played its cards right, it could become a magnet for bright minds who want to learn here and set up their new enterprise.

Smart cities also find a way of solving their own problems by linking themselves with cutting edge research being undertaken at local universities. Vancouver (along with Metro Vancouver and TransLink) should be conducting hundreds of research internships with local graduate students as a means of increasing its intellectual capacity.

Just imagine if the Engineering department were to bring in a couple dozen UBC researchers every year to work on better ways to keep traffic flowing in the city. Or what if the Cultural Services department found of way of helping civic theatres run more efficiently on the limited dollars they're provided each year.

Not only would the city benefit from the research, but they could also use this initiative as a recruiting tool to attract new talent.

The final installment of our Smart City vs. Green City series will be posted in the coming days. Here is a link to our previous post on this topic.

- Post by Daniel. You can follow us on on Twitter @CityCaucus or you can "like" us on Facebook at


If Anton says the bike lanes are staying then I want have to space for the following " I wish to pass voting for the mayor position" Because neither Robertson or Anton stand for what I want! I also want a plebsite for a expanded and relocated Casino which should have been done in the first place!

Great idea Daniel. A focus on bringing high-level academic events to Vancouver could be compelling and have some real spin offs. SIGGRAF was in Vancouver this summer and I am told it was a huge success. In fact, they are already looking at coming back. But rather than bring events to Vancouver, I think we need to grow our own events. This is what we are trying to do with the Design Thinking unConference by the way (I apologize for the shameless self promotion).

I think the kind of co-locaiton of research and company incubation works best when it is located where companies and the people that work for them naturally want to be. Until we get real transit out to the campuses that is not up on the mountain or out on the tip of the peninsula. Look at where SAP is located (Yaletown) or Hootsuite (down near the container port). Gas town is also popping and the Woodwards project seems to be having a positive impact.

In Boston I attended two events yesterday at the Cambridge Innovation Center (one on mobile the other a financing recpetion). We need some spaces like the CIC in Vancouver, including one downtown for Green technologies.

Excellent post Daniel! Nuff said.

Funny how so many people who post comments on this blog regularly complain about the lack of real positive policies being put forward here.

When there are like smart cities, the discussion goes dead (note only 3 comments when I wrote this).

Yet when a controversial post about Vision goes up, the comments section is full.

Just pointing out the obvious that the lefties who complain on this blog about a lack of real policy discussion are just phonies. All they want is for citycaucus to stop writing nasty stuff about their happy planet juice idol. They don't give a rats ass about good policy. Note how our beloved boohoo has gone silent.

As much as I like these kinds of columns, I think we quietly also really like the bash vision stuff more. But we're all afraid to publicly admit it.

As one of the 'lefties' or at least quasi Vision supporters (though open to other ideas and candidates) I would point out that it is not only the 'lefties' who go silent.

You are a very wise fella...:)

Uhh Tim, I don't see many comments 'left' or 'right'. I think 'smart' vs 'green' is a false premise to begin with, but I don't have much to say on the topic. I'm more of a land use/transportation kinda guy.

Happy planet juice idol--you mean the same one I have said repeatedly is an idiot and whose party I think should be disbanded (all parties)? That idol? Man, I suck at idol worship...

I'd also point out Tim that of the 3 posts prior to yours, one is an off topic rant about bike lanes (Klassen's law lol), one is a hooray and one is a post on topic--by the 'leftie' no less!

I am not a fan of trying to get head offices to relocate to Vancouver, I think we need to grow and keep our own companies, but I would like to see some more major research institutions located here. I think these can have more economic benefits than companies. Historically TRIUMF has been a very good thing for Vancouver, what other research facilities could we build or attract?

Look back a few years, there was a reason why the Province opened campuses in Okanagan (UBC) and the Northern BC! Yes if China sends their 0.00001% to 'study' here, as per Christy Clark's not thought over wishes, we may need to build a new city, for the rest of us, priced out of the city core... :-(

Hi Tim

I think your comment is about Smart City 1 rather than the idea Daniel put forth in the above post. But anyway, when I say I would like to see foreign graduate students I mean that we should be attracting the best and the brightest from around the world into Masters programs and above at BC univeristies, and then encouraging people to stay here and build or contribute to businesses and research careers. I have no interest in the mass market, low-level education business. Nor do I think we should gouge international students. If they are smart, give em scholarships. This won't be popular but I believe that foreign students should have competitive access to BC universities for the same price that BC students pay. Yes, I would happily have my tax dollars subsidize smart foreign graduate students.


The one issue I see with opening up the universities to foreign students - the overall competition and the strong possiblity that our Canadian students will be left out.

Many of the Asian countries (and European) offer an education system that outpaces ours, by a country mile. And, many Asian students take their education more seriously than our 'local' kids.

So, what happens to our 'local' students that wish to head to post secondary education if those spaces are taken by 'foreign' students. Do they stay in Canada or look out of country?

Completely agree Max!
Ned also said this: "Yes if China sends their 0.00001% to 'study' ... we may need to build a new city, for the rest of us, priced out of the city core."

...which is a fact, and it is happening right now! And I am not one of the Hollyhock pedigree, to retire on Cortes when the basket weaving falls out of fashion...:-)

Hi Max - We improve our own education system and we support our kids in studying harder. Anything else is a disservice to our own kids as if we don't do this knowledge worker jobs will migrate offshore. There are already aggressive knowledge process outsourcing firms like Integreon and IT services firms like Tata and Wipro that are doing this. If we sit on our hands we lose.

If one objects that we want our kids to be more well rounded, then we can include that in university admissions criteria. We have to be able to compete on brain power with the rest of the world.

"We improve our own education system and we support our kids in studying harder"

Easier said than done. Progressives have held an iron grip on the direction of education for the past 30 years and over that time have managed to increase graduates' expectations and sense of entitlement while at the same time driving out a critical attribute that is essential to meeting the economic challenges - competitiveness.

Undoing this level of damage will take time and we are fortunate to have energy and mineral resources that would bridge this transition. Unfortunately, Progressives actively obstruct the development of our energy resources and the Teachers Union fights any changes to the status quo.

"Anything else is a disservice to our own kids as if we don't do this knowledge worker jobs will migrate offshore."
Our jobs go offshore regardless of the local grown 'brains'. India, China... are to attractive to local corporations in terms of profit making on the back of cheap labor. Period. And then the ruthless human rights violators from those countries are sending their satellite kids & relatives here where they are welcome with open arms to study and settle. Of course they bring with them millions of dollars of sweatshops labor, without having to worry to ever work in Canada for a living... as long as someone else is slaving for them in their native countries...
It is happening we don't have to wait for it.

Check out!

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