“The climate crisis is our biggest existential threat,” said the University of Waterloo’s President, Vivek Goel, in his opening address at the Waterloo Innovation Summit on Friday, April 21. 

It’s no coincidence that the Summit, centred on sustainable transportation, took place on the eve of Earth Day.

The calls and commitments to reduce our carbon emissions have never been louder, but our global energy related CO2 emissions continued to climb in 2022.

“Innovation is essential. We will not meet the targets for carbon neutrality without technologies that do not exist today,” Goel continued. “We also know that it is not just technology alone [that will be the solution]. We need the right sets of policies and regulations. We also need to think about behavioural patterns and adoption of new technologies. That’s where collaborations and connections across disciplines will be important to think about these issues.”

This half-day event was hosted by the University of Waterloo, in partnership with MaRS Discovery District, who welcomed almost 200 sustainable transportation experts and innovators to the MaRS Centre in downtown Toronto. 

The setting was also no coincidence. MaRS, like the University of Waterloo’s Velocity and commercialization programs, helps to accelerate innovation into business solutions for global impact and economic growth.

Yung Wu, CEO of MaRS Discovery District told the audience that Canada has an opportunity to make a global impact through the innovation economy. “The talent and intellectual property being developed at academic institutions and being flowed through to innovation hubs to commercialize … that’s the launch pad to achieve success in Canada.”

Wu added that in addition to talent and commercialization ecosystems, coalitions and collaborations between institutions will help to launch new technologies and break down the barriers of behavior patterns and policy that Vivek noted as an imperative for change.

Innovation is an essential solution — if it's adopted

“Technological adoption needs to be done in conjunction with technological progress,” said Markus Moos, director of the School of Planning at Waterloo. He was part of a panel on infrastructure, policy and access for sustainable travel.

The panel discussed the connection between land use and transportation. Currently, many of Canada’s communities and infrastructure are designed around personal vehicle travel. Markus noted that in communities that design and subsidize sustainable systems, like public transportation or more rail options, you see people switch behaviours and adopt new models for travel. “What we subsidize as a society is ultimately the choice framework people will operate in.”

This theme was reiterated in the panel discussion on the mass adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). The moderator Tyler Hamilton, senior director of climate at MaRS said that creating infrastructure like more charging stations and optimizing power grid efficiency to support more EVs on the road will be the hurdle to counteract “range anxiety”.

Mabel Fulford, director of Innovation Partnership at Peak Power is hopeful and reports that adoption is growing fast along with demand. “The utility sector will be forced to keep up.”

Having the support of regulators is also an important factor that came up in the panel discussion on Canadian made innovations.

Ribbit uses pilotless flight technology to create a more robust supply chain by deploying small autonomous airplanes that fly cargo shipments into remote communities. Jeremy Wang, COO and co-founder said that when he first started out, he had thought regulatory issues would be the biggest hurdle but soon discovered that Transportation Canada was really supportive. The Velocity company has since flown test flights with Transport Canada’s approval to demonstrate proof of concept.

Remi Desa, CEO and co-founder of Pantonium, has found government adoption one of the biggest hurdles for his on-demand transit model. Pantonium is a MaRS backed company and offers a solution for municipal transit systems. He said that municipalities are slow adopters because they are risk adverse and not use to working with new, smaller companies. They found success working with a bold municipality, Fort Erie. This successful case has opened the door to more municipalities willing to attempt something new.

Working together with government partners and commercialization hubs, these businesses have been able to bring their innovations to market to benefit of the environment, economy and society.

This theme of connectivity and cross-disciplinary collaboration was top of mind for many speakers and guests at the Summit. Attendees came from all sectors across Canada including private companies, researchers from academia and institutes, all three levels of government and community organizations.

It will take all of these groups, working together, to make meaningful change and encourage technology adoption.

Coalitions, connections and collaborations

There may be no better example of collaboration than the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA). It is the worlds’ leading hub for sustainable aviation and aerospace research, technology and education. Its focus is on interdisciplinary inquiry, cross-sector partnerships and experiential learning to build a sustainable future for the sector.

As Goel noted in him opening remarks, “it is easy to suggest we just need to reduce transportation,” but the pandemic showed us that there is a human need to be with others and travel will always be a part of our future.

Suzanne Kerns, founding director of WISA, was the opening speaker that said her passion and reason to create this industry-first institute was driven by her love of flying and love of the planet. Through partnerships with industry and government, WISA researchers are developing innovative solutions, tools and practices to create a viable future for air transport.

“Sustainability is about meeting the needs of today without sacrificing future generations’ ability to meet their needs,” Kearns said.

And that is the fundamental reason why this cross-section of attendees and speakers gathered together at the Summit. The same reason why the world will be marking Earth Day on April 22.

We have a responsibility to the future generations to preserve our planet.

Implementing sustainable innovation in the transportation sector is an essential component to ensuring a sustainable future for the next generation to live and thrive.

Read additional coverage of the Waterloo Innovation Summit at Waterloo EDC.