This article by Zak Vescera originally appeared in The Vancouver Sun on 23 July 2019.
A proposal to turn part of Toronto’s waterfront into a tech-integrated “smart city” has drawn substantial media coverage. But there is another smart city project on the other side of the country — and it is already up and running.
UBC President Santa Ono says a $5.8-million federal investment to explore electric vehicles and sustainable building design technologies on campus is the university’s latest step in being a “living lab” to test building projects that may eventually be implemented at the municipal level.
“UBC is in many ways the perfect place to test new ideas that will contribute to a more sustainable planet,” said Ono during a ceremony on Tuesday.
The first project, announced by Minister of Natural Resources Amarjeet Sohi, is a $2.3-million partnership with B.C. Hydro and Cypress Power that will convert a parking garage into a source of solar power and supply a fleet of 12 electric cars.
The site will also test wireless charging for electric vehicles and use idle car batteries to store power and generate heating for the campus.
The second project is a $3.5-million investment to build and study a 111-unit, six-storey, energy-efficient residential building, whose power use will be compared to a standard-code building of the same size.
Sohi said such projects can’t be undertaken in municipalities because of zoning regulations and red tape. But at UBC, which enjoys a “quasi-municipality” status, it can be done relatively easy.
UBC’s Point Grey campus sits on four square kilometres of provincial land. Its overnight population is roughly 20,000, but in the daytime it grows to over 80,000, roughly the size of Kamloops.
Unlike Kamloops, UBC does not have an elected municipal government, and property projects are overseen by UBC Properties Trust, a subsidiary of the university that is not subject to freedom of information laws.
“I come from a municipal background,” said Sohi, a former Edmonton city councillor. “I know how prescriptive zoning and other regulations can be. They become a hindrance. … I think this (project) will allow cities to be more innovative and nimble in supporting more residents.”
It is just one of several experiments UBC leaders say fit into the bigger picture of a smart city.
In September, the campus will be the first in Canada to implement a 5G network, increasing the amount of data shared between various campus systems to improve efficiency and sustainability.
Walter Mérida, the director of UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre, says the school is currently in talks to replicate on-campus projects in partner cities such as Melbourne.
“We have developed initiatives where we use portions of our campus as city-scale testbeds where we can test concepts and solutions before they can be extrapolated and translated to other parts of the world,” he explained.