Surrey's Economy - SFU's Role in its Transformation

April 01, 2014

Presentation to the Surrey Board of Trade

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University


Thank you.  I’m delighted to be back with the Surrey Board of Trade, an organization that has done so much to promote the development of Surrey, and to support the role of Simon Fraser University as part of that development.

Today, I want to build on our relationship by talking both about what Surrey means to SFU and what more SFU might mean to Surrey.  I will use my time to cover three points:

First, we at SFU are incredibly proud of our role in Surrey to date. I want to spend a few moments recapping that history.

Second, I want to set out a challenge and an opportunity we face:

  • The challenge is an impending skills shortage that threatens the economy of this province … and especially of this region.
  • The opportunity is the number of young people south of the Fraser who, given the chance through education, stand ready to gain the skills and aptitudes required to meet that shortage … for their benefit and for the benefit of us all.

Third, I want to share with you the plans that we at SFU have developed to fulfill a longstanding commitment to increase post-secondary spaces in Surrey.  As you will see, we are determined to do so in a way that animates and diversifies the local economy, creating jobs for Surrey students and a stronger economic future for the community.

I suspect that few of you will be surprised to hear me say that, for SFU, this is all about engagement.  SFU has made it its mission to be an Engaged University.

SLIDE Our Vision

Indeed, our Vision is to be the leading engaged university, defined by our dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research and far-reaching community engagement.

And nowhere are we more engaged than here.  We are proud to have been a key contributor to the creation of what is now Surrey City Centre.

SLIDE Before and Boat Bottom

Architect Bing Thom deserves credit for the idea of transforming a fading shopping mall near the terminus of the Expo SkyTrain line into one of North America’s most innovative mixed-use facilities – a university and a thriving commercial centre.

SLIDE Surrey Aerial

The City of Surrey also deserves full credit for the vision and courage that they have shown over the last decade. They saw a vast underdeveloped patch of suburb and imagined a compact, walkable city centre and a vibrant economic hub.

SLIDE Library and City Hall

So, when you walk out of SFU Surrey today, you see the Surrey Central Library, home to our new SFU Surrey TD Community Engagement Centre, and the new City Hall, framing what will soon be a community plaza looking something like this …

SLIDE Community Plaza

… a stunning transformation and a fitting town-square for a city that is – for the time being – BC’s second largest.

For our part, SFU Surrey is situated in a state-of-the-art and architecturally magnificent 343,000-square-foot campus.


By our presence, we have already improved Surrey high school transition rates by 10%.

And we are pressing every square centimetre of that space into service. According to our original specifications and funding agreements with government, our facility was designed for an enrolment of 2,500 full-time equivalent student spaces.

But with international and unfunded domestic students, our actual FTE count in 2013 was 3,696.  We’re bursting at the seams.

Which brings us to a double-sided challenge:  a currently un-met demand for post-secondary spaces, and a future shortfall of appropriately skilled and educated workers.

SLIDE BC Labour Market Outlook

You might have seen the stories last week questioning whether BC is currently facing a skills shortage.  Whatever the answer, one thing is clear:  if we don’t expand our post-secondary offerings now, we will be facing such a shortage in the next few years.

The BC government’s 2010 to 2020 Labour Market Outlook shows that we will face serious lack of skilled labour starting as early as 2016.

SLIDE BC Skills Shortage

If you read the media reports on this topic, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is primarily a problem for skilled trades.

And indeed, by 2020, we will be facing a shortage of skilled tradespeople in the order of 2,300 – a significant impediment to reaching our full economic potential.

The more serious problems, however, come with the anticipated shortage of college and university graduates.  By 2020, we will need people with skills and credentials of the kind available at institutions like Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

And in the knowledge-based economy of the future, the greater demand still will be for young people – and mid-career workers – who have the education, aptitudes and skills that can be gained at SFU.

Thus the notion that we should fund the training of skilled trades at the expense of college or university students is, on the evidence, simply wrong.  While we need more seats at every post-secondary level, the anticipated demand is three-and-a-half times greater for university graduates.

The shortage in Surrey is even more severe.

I know I don’t need to persuade you of this, because the statistics I am about to quote come from the Surrey Board of Trade’s own research. But it’s important research that bears attention.

Surrey is the fastest growing city in British Columbia; its population has risen by more than 100,000 since SFU Surrey was founded in 2002.  One of every three Surrey residents is under 19 and the Surrey School District is amongst the largest in the province; it has 70,000 students.

Yet those students have access to fewer post-secondary spaces than students in any other part of the province.  For every one hundred 18-to-24-year-olds in this region, SFU Surrey and Kwantlen, together, offer just 12.7 post-secondary spaces. The provincial average is 48.7 spaces.

Here’s what that means for young people in Surrey.

SLIDE Surrey Admission Graph

This graph shows SFU admissions between 2007 and 2012.  We can accept just over 500 first-year students each year.  And let me be clear, these are extraordinary students.  Last year, we gave entrance scholarships – well deserved recognition of student merit – to more than 25 per cent of our first-year class.

But for every student we accept, we have to turn away three – and they’re well qualified too.  They have youth and promise, hope and curiosity – and great, great potential.  It’s a tragedy to let that go to waste.

Fortunately, it’s not only the Board of Trade that’s aware of the problem.  Even at the time SFU moved into its new campus in 2006, the provincial government recognized that more university spaces would be required in Surrey and entered an MOU committing to double SFU Surrey’s capacity by 2015.

As the problem has become more pressing, this goal has been affirmed by all-party legislative committees in 2011 and again last year. And, in both cases, the committees signalled this as the highest priority for post-secondary expansion in the province.  It’s time.

SLIDE Expansion Map

Meanwhile, we at SFU have been actively engaged in planning our expansion, figuring out how to get the maximum value out of those new spaces.

To begin, we have been working to ensure we have sufficient land in Surrey City Centre to accommodate the necessary growth.

We also have developed conceptual plans to build out that property.

Most importantly, we have produced a detailed proposal to government of the programs that we would like to introduce.

Let me tell you something about those programs.

SLIDE New Programs #1

The first, an Energy Systems Engineering Program, will address the urgent and growing need for engineers in this rapidly expanding area.

It will support the electricity, hydrogen and LNG sectors, and will help address a combined gap of 50,000 skilled energy workers needed in BC over next 10-15 years.  

It will integrate elements of policy, economics, management, and entrepreneurship, producing graduates who can immediately establish or join start-up and spin-off companies.

In this, as in other new programs, we plan to build on the great work that we are already doing.

SLIDE Fuel consumption team

For example, we have researchers and students working to improve the efficiency of conventional, fossil-fuel technology; one project involves reducing fuel consumption and emissions caused by idling truck engines.


And, we have a host of programs contributing to Surrey’s green energy hub, such as Majid Bahrami’s team, which is working with Future Vehicle Technologies to develop one of Canada’s first hybrid prototype cars.

SLIDE Ballard

On the learning side, SFU has one of Canada’s most extensive co-op education programs.  It covers many disciplines, but is mandatory in our Schools of Engineering Science and Mechatronic Systems Engineering.  

In just the last year, we have placed over 5,700 students with almost 1,100 organizations in BC and around the world.

Among them are more than 40 student and faculty researchers working with Ballard Power Systems and with Daimler Benz on the efficiency and durability of hydrogen fuel cells.

These are students who will be well-positioned to move directly into high-skilled, high-demand positions when they graduate, and who are already making significant creative and economic contributions.

SLIDE New Programs #2

The second new program, Health System Innovation and Sustainability, speaks to our relationship with BC’s largest health authority.

Fraser Health has committed itself to be a Living Laboratory, a place to create, test and refine new policies and practices that will lower costs and improve health outcomes.

In this category, we have designed five programs …

SLIDE Five Health Programs

… Health Systems Innovation, Population Health Promotion, Indigenous Health Development, eHealth Innovation and Informatics, and Health Technology Development and Assessment. 

Again, we are adding to existing strengths.

SLIDE Maryam Sadeghi

Consider the work of SFU Computer Science grad, Dr. Maryam Sadeghi, creator of the MetaOptima app to detect skin cancer.  Maryam heads up the new Digital Health Hub at SFU Surrey.

There’s also …

SLIDE Carolyn Sparrey

… Dr. Carolyn Sparrey of our Mechatronic Systems Engineering program, who is bringing biology and technology together in a way that will revolutionize spinal cord health care.

SLIDE Neurotech Lab

There’s brain research going on at the Neurotech Lab at Surrey Memorial Hospital.

SLIDE Virtual Reality

There is ground-breaking pain reduction research using virtual reality techniques being conducted in Diane Gromala’s Chronic Pain Research Institute in SFU Surrey.

SLIDE Safer Helmet

In health protection, there is a project on impact-diverting technology to help make helmets safer, the kind of innovation that promises to better protect everyone from football players in the stadium to kids on the street.

These examples also serve to highlight the importance we place on integration and interdisciplinarity.  Don’t try to tell Carolyn Sparrey in Mechatronics or Diane Gromala in our School of Interactive Arts and Technology that they have nothing to contribute to health research.

At SFU, connections like these ensure that the strengths of one program add to the strengths of others. 

Thus creative technologies can be used to treat chronic pain … or to improve the delivery of social services … or to help businesses operate more efficiently.  

In fact, that’s the idea behind our third new program area:

SLIDE New Programs #3

BC is home to a digital media and technology industry that employs 84,000 people. It’s BC’s 3rd largest sector, and the fastest creator of new jobs in the province.

SLIDE iPspace

We propose to prepare students for these jobs with a Game Design concentration program.  We also plan to develop a direct-entry Graduate Certificate in Visual Analytics.

SLIDE Visual Analytics

Again, this builds on existing strengths. 

For example, our Visual Analytics researchers have already worked extensively with Boeing to identify and reduce the dangers associated with bird strikes on commercial aircraft.

Beyond this, all of these new programs will benefit from a Certificate in Creative Entrepreneurship, leveraging the strengths of our Beedie School of Business, which already offers everything from entrepreneurial training for undergraduates to a part-time MBA that I suspect might be of interest to some people in this room.

Through all these programs, SFU Surrey students will get the best of all worlds:  a broadly based theoretical education in which they learn to think critically, conduct research, and solve problems.

And as people who will have to create their own economic futures and energize the economic future of the province, they will also gain entrepreneurial experience and workplace skills.

SLIDE Watts/D'Arcy

They are precisely the kind of people that Surrey Mayor Diane Watts was looking for when she and SFU Professor Ryan D'Arcy teamed up to launch Innovation Boulevard, a network of health agencies, post-secondary institutions, companies and talented people located within one square mile.

SLIDE Innovation Boulevard

This burgeoning precinct, which is also directly engaged with the Fraser Health Authority, leverages and supports more than 180 companies in health care alone.

This initiative is a shining example of SFU’s commitment to community engagement – and it shows the extent of our partnership with the City of Surrey.

Looking then to 2020, we needn’t see a skills shortage – at least not one nearly as daunting – nor need we see thousands of Surrey youth denied access to post-secondary education.

SLIDE High Schoolers

Instead what we should see are high school students like these ones (seen here visiting an SFU lab) be given the chance to realize their potential as scientists or health care providers.

SLIDE Elementary Schoolers

And we should see elementary school students, such as these children in our Sticks and Stars program, getting an opportunity to pursue their dreams, whether they want to be game designers, robotics engineers or business entrepreneurs.

Because they are our future. And they deserve to have access to the training and the tools they require to be the best that they can be … for their sake and ours.


It has been gratifying to be so engaged with you and the community of Surrey over the past 12 years.  And we at SFU are doubly excited at what lies ahead.

We look forward to continuing to work with the Board of Trade to make this expansion a reality, and to reap the rewards that Surrey and the whole province stands to gain.