When PSE and communities work together for a better future, everyone benefits

There’s a tremendous reservoir of living knowledge on the campuses of universities and colleges in Ontario. It’s present in the classrooms, in the research facilities, in the expertise of faculty members and in the blossoming minds of students.

In this new economy, a conversation has been growing in commercial and public sectors about how we can put that huge resource of knowledge to its most effective use in our workplaces and communities. It was the central topic of discussion on a panel I was delighted to moderate at a symposium organized by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO).

The theme of the discussion, ‘How Municipalities and Postsecondary Institutions are Partnering to Prepare for a Better Future’, is timely, because Ontario’s universities have spent the last year asking parents, students, business, not-for-profits and governments how they can help create a better future for all in these fast-moving times.

One message we received loud and clear is this: The challenges facing our communities – such as an aging population, straining infrastructure and economic disruption – need to be addressed by bold and innovative thinking, and that partnerships between universities, business and local stakeholders hold great potential for driving this.

The City of Oshawa’s Teaching City is the latest and one of the most ambitious initiatives to leverage knowledge transfer between PSE for the benefit of a community in Ontario. It unites the brainpower of the University Of Ontario Institute Of Technology (UOIT), Durham College and the University of Toronto’s Civil Engineering Department with the city’s leaders and managers to find working solutions to urban challenges. (The Canadian Urban Institute is also a partner in the initiative).

This initiative is exciting because it represents a new kind of collaboration − the ramping up of creative dialogue between PSE and local government, a two-way flow of knowledge and expertise, and a willingness to pursue new ways of problem solving.

Oshawa, a forward-thinking, fast-growing municipality, wants its partnership with the PSE institutions to help it endow its workforce with the adaptable skills needed to tackle tomorrow ’s challenges. And when the city needs new ideas for, say, managing traffic or creating green spaces, the knowledge exchange between the partners will ensure that it can turn to new, creative solutions.

“What we’re looking for is to engage the great talent pools that we have at our postsecondary institutions and make sure that the solutions we come up with are robust and will serve us for the long term,” Jag Sharma, City Manager for the City of Oshawa, told the AMO panel.

One example is already in the works − a joint project to help the city boost its diversity and inclusiveness, based on research on national and global best practices conducted by the PSE partners. The project is already showing how this kind of collaboration promotes action, and not just talk, according to Sharma.

Scott Aquanno, professor of Social Sciences at UOIT, said the Teaching City will have enormous benefits for both sides: The city will have access to the vast resource of talent and knowledge at the university and college, while those institutions’ students and faculty will “learn by learning” as they engage with city staff on developing and implementing solutions.

Durham College’s Chief Information Officer, Janse Tolmie, said this kind of hands-on, practical collaboration was a model for finding solutions to urban problems.

There is no end to what communities can achieve if we can scale up the kind of collaboration seen in the Teaching City and extend it across all corners of the province. Universities stand ready to work on this goal with their municipal governments, from the big cities to the mid-sized towns and small rural townships.

David Lindsay
President and CEO
Council of Ontario Universities