Campus as a Living Laboratory

Forestry Sciences Building. Credit: Don Erhardt

At UBC, we view our entire campus as a living laboratory, a kind of giant sandbox in which there is the freedom to explore—creatively and collaboratively—the technological, environmental, economic and societal aspects of sustainability.

As a living laboratory, UBC faculty, staff and students and private, public and NGO partners use the University's physical plant, combined with UBC’s education and research capabilities, to test, study, teach, apply and share lessons learned, technologies created and policies developed. We study our own behaviours and discoveries to advance sustainability scholarship inside and outside UBC.

This deep integration of operational and academic efforts in sustainability challenges the UBC community to reach across traditional boundaries of disciplines, sectors and geographies to affect change.

The four cornerstones of UBC's living laboratory initiative are:

  1. The integration of UBC's core academic mandate (research and teaching) with the University's operations
  2. Partnerships between the University and private sector, public sector or NGO organizations
  3. Sound financial use of UBC's resources and infrastructure
  4. The potential to transfer the knowledge UBC gains into practical, positive action applicable to the greater community

UBC is uniquely suited to act as a living laboratory.  We are a community of over 49,000 students, 13,000 faculty and staff, and residents, with over 50 per cent of campus households occupied by someone who studies or works at UBC. We have about 500 buildings covering 402 hectares of land. We own and operate our own utilities including electrical, heating, water and waste.  We are responsible for our own roads and infrastucture.

As owner-operators of this substantial and extensive institution we are able to be early innovators in areas where others may not be prepared or are not equipped to do so. We care about both supply and demand for utilities.  What operations outside of the university setting might see as a risk, we see as a research challenge.

As a public institution we have a longer planning horizon than other organizations, especially corporations. While we must carefully plan our finances, we are able to evaluate and consider changes where benefits may accrue over decades or more.

We are making great strides in transforming our campus into a vibrant and complete sustainable community and, importantly, we are working at a scale that is interesting to other communities. For example, researchers are studying--and operations is implementing--new approaches to UBC's energy generation and distribution systems. The hope is that in the long term, because we are representative of many communities, then many communities can implement the kinds of sustainability solutions we are exploring.

UBC is investing $150 million in four projects to meet our climate change goals:

  1. The Centre for Interactive Research in Sustainability, pioneering sustainable building design and operation, in partnership with Honeywell, Haworth, BC Hydro and Modern Green Developments.
  2. Continuous building optimization, campus-wide building energy tune-ups, in partnership with Pulse Energy and BC Hydro
  3. Bioenergy Research and Demonstration Facility, developing emerging bio-fuel technology, in partnership with Nexterra Systems and GE Electric
  4. District energy steam to hot water conversion, improving efficiency and creating a platform for integration of alternative energy sources on campus.  

The first three projects exemplify UBC's vision for "living laboratory" efforts, integrating UBC operations, UBC research and industry partners to address sustainability challenges at a commercially-relevant scale. The fourth project, steam to hot water conversion, is a foundational project that supports UBC’s drive to reduce GHGs and introduce further Campus as a Living Lab projects.

Other living laboratory initiatives include:

  1. SEEDS Program that brings together students, staff and faculty to improve campus sustainability
  2. Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, facilitating interdisciplinary learning, research and programs at UBC Farm  
  3. Smart Energy System, a project in partnership with Honeywell to develop a fully integrated community energy system combining both heat and electricity management across academic, residential and combined precincts on the Vancouver campus. The first step is a data collection program for three buildings that will allow the University to make smart energy management decisions. 
  4. Electro-chemical Energy Storage Project, in which researchers are evaluating and demonstrating the integration of energy storage into a community power grid.

As owner-operators, we have discretion to try new things. As researchers, we have an incentive to try new things first. This is the essence of the campus as a living laboratory.