Applied research in support of a resilient and sustainable economic recovery

Denise Amyot,
President and CEO, Colleges and Institutes Canada

COVID-19 has forced us all to innovate in unexpected ways as we adjusted to a new reality of social distancing, telework and limited movement. As we now begin to reflect on what a postpandemic recovery will look like, it is clear that our capacity to innovate will remain one of the key success factors. Luckily in Canada we have a strong network of colleges and institutes that has shown over the years, and throughout this pandemic, that post-secondary institutions can truly occupy an essential place in our country’s innovation landscape.

With over 95% of Canadians living within 50km of their local college or institute, few other institutions are poised to have a positive impact right across the country. This means that their applied research offices are able to have a real impact on both Canadians and their communities, including businesses, and in particular SMEs, which have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

Canada is a nation of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) that often lack the capacity,
equipment and networks to undertake the kind of research and development that would drive their
businesses forward. This can be a huge challenge when your world gets turned upside down, almost
overnight. By working directly with thousands of SMEs and serving as gateways to the innovation ecosystem, colleges and institutes have been able to support many SMEs throughout the pandemic, and will continue to play that role in the months to come. From developing respirators and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers using 3D printing and other advanced manufacturing techniques, to using cloud computing to create a real-time COVID-19 outbreak tracker, colleges and institutes, and their students, have already been involved in many projects to help Canada face the pandemic.

In fact, applied research activity involving students has been growing incredibly fast at colleges and institutes over the past decade. In 2017-18, CICan members entered into over 7,300 partnerships
to produce more than 4,400 prototypes, products, processes, and services, 87% of which were completed in less than one year. More than 77% of these partnerships were with private sector partners, and most of these with SMEs.

Given their focus on meeting the needs of their communities and helping local businesses find practical solutions to a variety of challenges, it only makes sense that colleges and institutes will have lots to contribute to Canada’s recovery from COVID-19, helping businesses find a new normal. Getting students involved to leverage their fresh perspectives and ingenuity is a win-win proposition for students and employers.

Colleges and institutes can also support the government’s broader objectives as it aims to “build back better”. This includes an important focus on rebuilding a greener and more sustainable economy. Once again, innovation will be key, and colleges and institutes have the expertise needed to support this transition.

In 2017-2018, half of Canada’s colleges and institutes conducted research on clean technologies and utilities.

By working directly with thousands of SMEs and serving as gateways to the innovation ecosystem, colleges and institutes have been able to support many SMEs throughout the pandemic, and will continue to play that role in the months to come.

Whether it’s testing new electric vehicles to make sure they work well in cold climates, or developing more efficient manufacturing processes, these projects have direct impacts in greening their communities while supporting thousands of SMEs who are growing Canada’s sustainable economy.

With the next federal budget expected to focus on economic recovery, it will be important to fully leverage the innovation potential of colleges and institutes. We believe that investing $165 million over two years in the College and Community Innovation Program (CCIP) would help maintain the college applied research capacity to help businesses and communities survive the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and pivot as the economy adjusts.

An amount of $85M over two years is needed to support rapid-response and entry-level grants to
improve or develop new products and services, including those involving technology adoption and
green innovation; with an additional $80M over two years for colleges to engage SMEs and other
partners in applied research to support community recovery efforts.

Additional support for college sustainability Centres of Excellence would also empower institutions to
collaborate with community partners and municipalities to infuse the labour market with graduates equipped to support zero carbon, diverse and resilient communities.

In addition to new funding for green infrastructure to help upgrade and retrofit campuses across the country, this would boost the capacity of colleges and institutes to meet employers’ skills development needs, support innovation through applied research, and reboot an inclusive, environmentally  sustainable economy.