Thanks to a transformational $10 million donation from Caivan Group (Caivan), one of Canada’s leading real estate developers, co-founded by Waterloo alumni Frank Cairo (BES ’05) and Troy van Haastrecht (BASc ’93), the University has embarked on a bold new mission to create healthier, more prosperous cities with the launch of the Future Cities Institute founded by CAIVAN (FCI).  

At the gift announcement and launch event on April 3, 2024, some of the challenges facing cities today and the need for futures-thinking interventions were critically discussed. From the rising cost of housing, aging infrastructure and climate change to the disruptive impacts of technology, the FCI will connect across the University to develop plans and applied toolkits for building resilient future cities, and train future leaders. 

 “We're thrilled to be here with you today as the Future Cities Institute turns into a reality,” commented van Haastrecht in his opening remarks. “We've been talking to Dr. Goel and the University of Waterloo about this idea for years, and in particular we've been discussing the role academics and academia can play in city building, and how we can collaborate across sectors and disciplines to create meaningful solutions to the big challenges and threats society is facing — solutions that people will actually feel in their day-to-day lives.” 

The FCI is an expansion of the Future Cities Initiative that Cairo and van Haastrecht supported in 2020, with an initial $1 million seed investment in Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment.  

Now, having officially launched as an institute, the FCI will focus on four main areas of research: housing, modelling, mobility and sustainable infrastructure, and how they intersect with future sustainability, economic, societal, health and technological goals. 

In his opening remarks before an audience of more than 300 industry and government partners, students, alumni, staff and faculty, Vivek Goel, University of Waterloo’s President and Vice-Chancellor, explained that “the Future Cities Institute is an example of aligning our academic and research strengths across disciplines to make the most impact on the field of future city building.” He continued, “FCI brings together our exceptional strengths in applied science and engineering, interdisciplinary research, work-integrated learning, partnership building and academic programming to the field of city building.” 

Cairo shared that “Caivan is founding the FCI to abandon entrenched ways of thinking, with a better tomorrow in mind. The status quo isn't working to drive prosperity in Ontario and Canada,” he said. “We need decisive leadership that's equipped with the right data and the right arsenal of tools. We need to approach city building with the scientific method and evidence-based solutions, which is exactly the kind of thinking that the talent at the University of Waterloo excel in.”  

Cairo further shared the reason behind the gift, and said, “cities and their surroundings, have the capacity to dramatically improve the human condition, and guarantee a positive change for us in the future.  By democratizing new and advanced toolkits through applied science and mathematics, we will build a stronger bridge for community leaders to make a difference, and we hope will drive prosperity into the future.” 

During a thought-provoking armchair chat that discussed some of the urgent challenges and opportunities facing cities, Mary Wells, dean of the Faculty of Engineering, emphasized the need for engineering solutions to be grounded in the needs of individuals and their communities. “The Future Cities Institute will provide an exceptional space for knowledge sharing, ensuring that future urban-planning leaders are equipped with the knowledge and skillsets to tackle our cities’ toughest problems,” she said. 

 Leia Minaker, Vivek Goel, Frank Cairo, Mary Wells and Bruce Frayne

Seated from left to right: Leia Minaker, Vivek Goel, Frank Cairo, Mary Wells and Bruce Frayne

In responding to the question of why Caivan cares about solving problems related to sustainability, health and equity in cities, Cairo said, “In my view, access to home is not only a right and freedom, but it really is what allows for a healthy society. But wealth accumulation in our society is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. When it comes to democratizing prosperity, it means we either need to get housing back to an affordable place where we can have more people access it, or it means we need a new data-driven method of productively building wealth in Western society.” 

The panel was moderated by Bruce Frayne, dean of the Faculty of Environment, who emphasized that the work coming out of the FCI will translate into tools and mindsets that can be applied elsewhere in the world. “By the end of the century, which is not that far, we're going to have another three and a half billion people on this planet who will all be housed in cities, and those cities are yet to be built, and most of those will be on the continent of Africa.  So, there are very significant global challenges at play, that are not just Canadian-centric,” Frayne added. “What we do here, I really believe will help us make not only the local impact that we need to in partnership with CAIVAN and others but will allow us as an institution to have that global reach and make that global impact that we talked about under Waterloo at 100.” 

Leia Minaker, the inaugural director of the FCI, also shared context of how the project evolved from an initiative in 2020 to an institute today. She shared the initiative's impact to date, including the Faculty of Environment’s launch of an undergraduate diploma and professional master's program to prepare future leaders to anticipate and manage the challenges associated with rapid urbanization.   

“The reimagined FCI will prioritize training the next generation of leaders to address complex urban issues, leveraging partnerships to build capacity and solve applied transdisciplinary research problems, and mobilizing knowledge across the five Global Futures outlined in Waterloo at 100,” she says. “Our initial research programs will focus on housing and modeling integrated cities, and within the next two years, we’ll launch research programs in future mobility and sustainable infrastructure.” 

In a challenge to the audience Cairo shared that “The choices for the future we want are still in our hands. And it's definitely not too late … let's get to work with deep curiosity, with setting goals and tracking progress.”