SFU and Surrey: Envisioning Silicon Valley North

May 10, 2011

Remarks to the Surrey Board of Trade
Eaglequest Golf Course, Surrey

Professor Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Thank you for that warm welcome.

I’m tempted to say how happy I am to be “back in Surrey.”  But I fear that would suggest that I am an itinerant – someone who’s just passing through.  To the contrary, the university I represent has become an established resident of this City.

As such, we have benefitted hugely from our relationship with the Surrey business community.  Members of your community have played crucial roles in the development of our Surrey campus and our university.  Many of you have:

  • supported us financially;
  • served on our advisory committees;
  • participated in our programs;
  • mentored our students;
  • attended our functions;
  • provided co-op placements or internships; and
  • hired our graduates.

Thank you for these contributions.  Together with the support we have received from the City, the Province, the federal government and others, you have helped SFU to become not just a major educational provider in Surrey, but a transformative force.  It has been in the past; it can be in the present; and I have no doubt that it will be in the future.

SFU has certainly been transformative in the past – contributing to the structural and social development of a thriving and exciting new Surrey city centre.

Our transformative qualities are also urgently needed in the present – particularly given that this, the fastest growing municipality in the province, currently has fewer post-secondary seats per capita than almost any jurisdiction in BC.

Perhaps most significant, however, will be SFU’s transformative impact in the future.  As my speech title suggests, I believe that we should be ambitious in our aspirations.  The act of envisioning Silicon Valley North is not a flight of fancy.  It is a realistic, albeit bold, exercise in goal setting.

I do not mean to suggest that Surrey will displace the original Silicon Valley as the hottest high tech precinct on the continent.  Rather, I’m saying that – in the foreseeable future – when people cast around North America for the model of a vibrant, prosperous, innovative and creative community, if we get it right, they will look to Surrey.

They will look to a partnership between a diverse and dynamic population and Canada’s most engaged research university.  And they will see an example of economic and social development that North American cities will wish to emulate.

For the past few months, SFU has been engaged in a process called envision>SFU – a wide ranging consultation on what people see as SFU’s current strengths, and future possibilities.

We’ve learned a lot.  Much of what we’ve learned has confirmed our determination to be a university that is student-centred, research-driven and community-engaged.  People appreciate that we put students first – that as Canada’s leading comprehensive university, we remain committed to providing a high-quality learning experience for undergraduate as well as graduate students.

At the same time, we are also admired as a research university – indeed, SFU is rated among the top 200 research universities in the world out of the 17,000 or so institutions monitored for the Times Higher Education Index.

That research capacity can be transformative in many ways.  It generates the kinds of ideas and innovations that enable me to talk about the emergence of a Silicon Valley North.  But it also enriches the educational experience for all of our students who benefit from being exposed to leading scholars, graduate student mentors, international opportunities – who learn how to work within a truly creative and innovative organization.

The third critical element is the degree to which SFU is engaged with the communities it serves, and here I return to the experiences we have had – and hope to continue to have – engaging and helping to transform the City of Surrey.

Let me start with what I see as the first of those transformations, in which I was privileged to play a role because it took place in the 1990s, when I was Minister of Advanced Education.  

At a time when my Ministry was pondering where to site a proposed post-secondary institution known as Tech BC, architect Bing Thom and then-ICBC Chair Bob Williams proposed the location at which SFU Surrey sits today.

They saw the transformative possibilities of situating a major new post-secondary facility in a struggling shopping area near a SkyTrain station in the heart of Surrey; and they convinced me and others of the potential for this development to spur widespread urban renewal.

It was an inspired idea, and one that attracted support from the City of Surrey in the form of a significant contribution of land.  Of course, Tech BC later morphed into SFU Surrey with the help of over $70 million in capital funding from the Province, and the result has been stunning.

Thanks to the City’s subsequent leadership, and the outstanding support of the Surrey business community, Surrey City Centre is now blossoming as a metropolitan hub with a thriving retail district surrounded by dozens of new residential towers and an impressive array of head and regional offices – Fraser Health, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and McQuarrie Hunter, to name a few.

So SFU, Surrey and the Province have already demonstrated our capacity to work together to transform this community.  How do we draw upon that capacity going forward?

I’ve already mentioned that Surrey has a major deficit in post-secondary spaces – the Board of Trade’s recent study documented this dramatically.  Moreover, this is a growing problem.

Surrey is already the 12th largest city in the country, and it is destined to overtake Vancouver as the 3rd largest within 20 years.  This is a vibrant city – in its energy and its demographics.

More than a third of the population is aged 19 or under, which helps explain why Surrey is the largest school district in BC and one of few that is growing.  By 2016, more than 30 per cent of all high school students in the province will graduate from a school south of the Fraser.

Unfortunately, this youthful bounty is not matched by a similar wealth of educational resources.  Your study found that the South Fraser region has just one post-secondary seat for every ten 18 to-29-year-olds, compared to a provincial average of 2.4 seats.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Surrey, with only half as many university graduates per capita as Vancouver, also has much lower rates of transition from high school to post-secondary education.

That has to change, for the sake of Surrey’s social and economic health, and for the wealth of individuals who make up this emergent community.

First, on the economy: labour market analysis shows that we, in Surrey and across Canada, are facing an impending double-risk.  As baby boomers retire, we face a shortage of labour, especially in jobs requiring post-secondary education.  At the same time, we’re looking at rising unemployment amongst people who don’t have the education or skills necessary in a knowledge based economy.

A recent BC Government report – “Skills for Growth” – estimates that 77 per cent of the 1.1 million new jobs to be created in this province over the next decade will require post secondary education; compared to 67 per cent of workers who currently meet this standard.

Thus, we have an economic problem – a looming labour shortage – and a social problem – growing unemployment. [Or, as one analyst has put it: “People without Jobs; Jobs without People”.]

That’s why we need to increase post-secondary participation rates not just in Surrey, but throughout British Columbia.  The “Skills for Growth” report suggests that by 2020, 90 per cent of high school graduates will require some post-secondary training, just to keep pace with market demand.

This is a wonderful opportunity for a forward-thinking provincial government.  A single investment in post-secondary education can meet two goals: first, it can energize the economy – ensuring that we have a sufficient number of skilled workers; and second, it can reduce unemployment.  It’s a win/win.

But looking to the individual level, there’s more.  Education provides a financial dividend to successful students.  Post-secondary graduates don’t just fill jobs; they make more money.

Recent research from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario shows that college graduates earn 25 per cent more than those with a high school diploma.  University graduates earn 50 per cent more.

The additional advantage that accrues to university graduates relates again to the theme of transformation.  College students generally learn a specific and applicable skill, something that at this juncture is necessary, but – over the long term – may still not be enough.

We have all just lived through a tumultuous generation, a 20-year period during which the whole notion of a guaranteed job for life seems to have disappeared.

Given the continued pace of change, we could easily train a whole new cohort of students with skills that 10 years from now will be irrelevant – even forgotten.

But the capacities to think critically, to acquire new knowledge, and to maintain civic literacy – meta-skills that students acquire at a research university like SFU – are likely to stand them in good stead throughout their changing careers.

And that’s key, because just as with SFU and Surrey, a single transformation is no longer enough.  We need to educate a generation of young people who will be able to remake themselves – and their communities – again and again.

So how do we do that at the community level?  And how do we leverage our educational advantage for the transformation of Surrey itself?

Well, we know we have the ingredients.  We have the young people.  We have a supportive and creative municipal government.  We have an entrepreneurial and dynamic business community with connections stretching around the world.  And we have more than 45 per cent of the vacant industrial land in Metro Vancouver.

All we need now is to include a catalyst and turn up the heat.  And that catalyst, I suggest, is an expanded SFU!

I’ve already spoken about a great university’s capacity to transform the individual, but a research university such as SFU can do so much more, both in leveraging major economic opportunities and addressing serious social concerns.

SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, for example, is Canada’s most comprehensive program in population and public health, featuring the first master of public health degree in English Canada to receive accreditation from the Council on Education for Public Health.

We see the opportunity for a significant expansion of this program in Surrey, with enthusiastic collaboration from the Fraser Health Authority, soon to be our cohabitant in the Central City complex.  Given Canada’s growing – and aging – population, and given the steady rise in government health expenditures, we believe that an investment in expanding preventative and public health education will pay dividends for everyone – especially Surrey.

There’s a related example here – one that captures our strength as a high-tech campus and demonstrates our potential as a research and education destination – a destination capable of attracting some of the world’s best teaching and research talent, as well as some of the most eager and capable students.

We recently recruited Dr. Carolyn Sparrey from the University of California-Berkeley to join us as the first woman faculty member in Mechatronics Systems Engineering.

Mechatronics is one of those “cool campus” programs.  Based here in Surrey, it’s a highly competitive area that spans robotics, automotive and aerospace engineering.  Yet Prof. Sparrey just won a major Canada Foundation for Innovation grant to open a Neurospine Biomechanics Lab.  She will be using mechatronics engineering to help prevent, diagnose and treat brain and spinal cord injuries.

It’s a perfect example of high tech engineering meeting health care objectives.

On the economic side, the City, SFU and others see the opportunity to establish Surrey as a hub for British Columbia’ clean energy sector.  By harnessing and developing this region’s already impressive strengths in clean energy– ranging from solar and fuel cells to energy efficiency – such a hub can assist this sector, and indeed the province, to become a world leader in what is emerging as a hugely important component of the global, knowledge-based economy of the future.

With this in mind, and recognizing that success in this area is dependent upon access to highly skilled workers and to world-class research, SFU is planning to develop a program in Energy Systems Engineering on its Surrey campus.  We’re working closely in this regard with local energy companies and with the City, which also sees Surrey as a hub for clean energy technology and development.

Beyond health and clean energy, we’re ready to expand programs in core undergraduate disciplines and other relevant areas, such as environment, business and interactive arts.

We also have longer-term ambitions to increase our graduate programs and to add specialized teaching and research labs – including business incubators to help lift the ideas from the bench and carry them into the marketplace.

In total, we have plans for three new facilities that will enlarge SFU’s contribution to the establishment of downtown Surrey as a thriving new metropolitan centre.

This brings me to a critical point in our transformative journey.  You may recall that the Province in 2006, in recognition of the urgent need for post secondary spaces in Surrey, signed an MOU with SFU committing to double the number of full-time students at our Surrey campus from 2,500 to 5,000 - by 2015.

This was a significant and welcome undertaking, even if the increase then agreed to is much less than what Surrey now requires.  But having seen no progress toward that goal in the past five years, it is critical we work together – the University, the municipality, and the business community – to persuade the Province of the urgency and merit of Surrey’s case.

We all know that times are fiscally tight and that government faces a daunting list of conflicting priorities.  But I hope that I have convinced you – as together we must convince government – that this is not just about meeting a commitment from the past, it’s about seizing an opportunity for the future – for the benefit of the Province as well as of this community.

Earlier I used the term “win/win” in describing the potential for investments in education.  On the one hand, such investments will ensure that we have a workforce capable of growing a competitive economy.  On the other hand, they will reduce unemployment and its associated social and economic costs.

Moreover, any investment that promotes higher incomes for workers also produces greater tax revenues for government.  SFU recently calculated the education dividend enjoyed by our existing graduates and found that, in the Lower Mainland alone, they’re earning $1 billion more than they would had they not gone to university.  Given that those graduates tend to be in higher tax brackets, that represents a huge dividend as well in government revenues.  That’s a third “win” you can add to the column marked “government.”

So where do we stand?

We have in SFU an energetic university committed to harnessing all of its physical, educational and research resources – not only to help students reach their full potential, but to help communities do the same.

We have, in Surrey, a dynamic city with a motivated business community and a determination to demonstrate what it means to be a healthy, sustainable and economically vibrant community.

If we move forward together, combining our energies and resources, and enlisting the support of others, I am convinced we can build a community and an economy that, like the Silicon Valley, is looked to by others as a model of how to get it right.

This is the transformative way forward, for SFU and for Surrey – and one that I look forward to walking together in the months and years ahead.