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UBC Okanagan: a case study in driving regional socio-economic development through innovation

October 25, 2016
By: 
Professor Deborah Buszard
UBC Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Principal
Okanagan campus

UBC’s Okanagan campus offers an outstanding case study in driving regional socio-economic development through innovation. In its first decade, UBC Okanagan and has already had a significant positive impact on the southern interior region of British Columbia; the approaches that have facilitated this impact may offer lessons for other non-metropolitan regions in Canada.

The southern interior of BC is known for tourism, orchards and vineyards, and as a hub for resource extraction. However, like many non-metropolitan areas of Canada, it needs to find its place in the new economy. As a hub of advanced research and teaching, committed to community partnerships, UBC Okanagan is uniquely placed to help drive regional socio-economic development. Home to more than 8600 students from across Canada and around the world, it has emerged as a key collaborative player in developing strategies to enable the BC interior to participate fully in the knowledge and innovation economy.

With its new UBC campus, the Okanagan has emerged as a perfect ‘laboratory’ to understand how institutions can function as active participants and drivers in the regional innovation ecosystem. We created the Regional Socio-Economic Development Institute of Canada (RSEDIC) specifically to produce and disseminate lessons on building thriving regional economies and innovative, resilient and culturally rich communities. RSEDIC partners with municipalities, First Nations, industry, non-profit organizations and post-secondary institutions on these issues, in projects ranging from strengthening cooperation and export readiness in the BC wine industry, to engineers, social scientists and artists addressing ‘wicked problems’ of municipal infrastructure delivery.

There is a strong focus on business and enterprise in the region, and a growing innovation sector. In 2016, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business identified Kelowna as Canada’s most entrepreneurial city, and Kelowna has the third largest tech sector in British Columbia. A recent inventory of the region’s innovation ecosystem revealed that a rich innovation network is emerging in the region, with substantial expertise and investments in tech, agriculture, sustainable energy delivery and infrastructure in place.

Importantly, Okanagan communities have embraced the UBC campus, and the University is tightly engaged in a wide variety of community-based initiatives and research projects. The campus is working closely with municipalities, businesses, non-profits and First Nations to address issues ranging from homelessness and addiction, to traffic flows and sustainable construction, smoking cessation, wellness promotion, and developing a ‘healthy city’ approach. This unusual level of community engagement is intentionally fostered through local and international partnerships, with support from Mitacs and other organizations.

Canada is a leader in post-secondary-based research yet lags other advanced economies in business-led R&D and in business productivity. At UBC Okanagan, we are taking new approaches that we believe will allow universities to leverage their expertise to enable engagement with outside partners. We are facilitating the ability of those partners to grow, innovate and become internationally competitive. One of these approaches is STAR, the Survive and Thrive Applied Research facility, established thanks to an investment by Western Economic Diversification Canada. STAR equipment and expertise are fostering commercialization of advanced technologies related to defence and security, disaster management, harsh condition survivability, and human health and performance in remote environments. STAR partners researchers with Western Canadian SMEs and international companies, particularly those involved in delivering defence technologies to Canada. It is a potent vehicle enabling research translation in industrial areas of crucial strategic importance to Canada which will have a real and immediate impact on talent generation and regional economic growth.

Another development is the definition of a 30 acre Innovation Precinct on the UBC Okanagan campus to accommodate productive long-term engagement with industry and non-profits. The Innovation Precinct will allow us to use our world-class academic talent to address significant R&D challenges, while creating novel training opportunities for the next generation of Canadian knowledge creators. As an example, we recently partnered with Avcorp Industries to establish a Learning Factory for Advanced Composites at the Precinct. The Learning Factory will combine the expertise of the UBC Composite Research Network with a Canadian manufacturer that plays a key role in the Boeing supply chain. Working together in an integrated factory and research facility, UBC and Avcorp will analyze and solve the significant production and quality control issues that currently limit composite manufacturing. This factory will leverage university expertise to enhance Canada’s ability to compete in global markets, provide a unique training platform in advanced manufacturing for students at UBC and at local colleges, create 100+ private sector manufacturing jobs in the Okanagan, and establish Kelowna as an advanced manufacturing hub.

UBC Okanagan is committed to building partnerships that create unique research, learning, and job creation opportunities. Working with government, industry, and communities, our goal is to catalyze socio-economic development in the southern interior of British Columbia while learning lessons that may be applied in other non-metropolitan regions. Continued progress will require sustained partnerships and strong relationships with all levels of government, for whose support we are most grateful. Together we can transform and diversify the regional economy to one that is driven by innovation, supplies global markets, and meets the challenges of the 21st century.