We The City: Simon Fraser University leads a week-long look at city building

October 27, 2015

Op-Ed submitted to the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Great cities are not built with bricks alone.  They are alive and organic, and their greatness depends less on their physical infrastructure and location than on their cultural assets and social networks.

Cities are places where people engage – where they live and work, where they meet and learn, where they party and play. No matter the grandeur of the architecture nor the beauty of the setting, cities that lose sight of these imperatives soon start to decline, decaying from neglect and dysfunction.

So, we are the city. The question, for citizens and institutions, is how do we best fulfill our responsibilities – and make the most of our opportunities – to build cities that are stronger, healthier and more sustainable?

That’s the question for the fourth annual SFU Public Square Community Summit, running this year from Oct. 30 to Nov. 7. And the Summit itself can be seen as part of the answer. One city-building role that a university can play is as a convenor of important conversations – a public square for enlightenment and dialogue on key public issues.

Actually, there are a host of city-building opportunities for research universities, as well as for colleges, medical institutions, and other creative or knowledge-based organizations. In a major new report from the U.S. National Research Network, these are characterized as “anchor institutions” – the kind of talent magnets and innovation hothouses that can help shape and structure urban economies and enrich and strengthen the artistic, cultural and social life of the city.

As Canada’s most community-engaged research university, we at SFU never stop thinking about these opportunities. For example, in preparation for this year’s Community Summit, we convened a group of students from across the country to brainstorm about universities’ capacities as city builders. They identified four themes:

  • First, and perhaps not surprisingly, they raised the role of university students and graduates as change makers – a new generation of animators for growth and development.
  • Second, they pointed to the role of research universities to generate and mobilize new ideas and discoveries.
  • Third, they noted the related role that universities can play as hubs for economic and social innovation.
  • Finally, they identified universities’ potential impact as landowners and developers.

As an institution once dubbed “the radical campus,” SFU has never questioned the ability of our students to provoke or guide change. And being a leader in research mobilization, we have no doubts about the power of our research and discoveries. We pride ourselves on connecting this capacity to communities through facilities such as 4D Labs, a materials science lab that is programmed to work with private-sector partners on research and development.

This year’s Community Summit also follows the launch of SFU Innovates, a university-wide innovation strategy to link and harness our entrepreneurship programs and business incubation facilities – including Venture Connection (our student incubator), VentureLabs® (our digital technology accelerator), and RADIUS (our social innovation lab).

Finally, as a landowner and developer, SFU has leveraged its physical assets to strengthen the communities we serve and to facilitate the exchange of education, culture and ideas.  In Vancouver, we continue to build the downtown precinct that this paper has called “the intellectual heart of the city.” Our most recent facility, the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, will soon be joined by our new social innovation centre across the street at Hamilton and West Hastings. In Surrey, we’re planning to expand the campus that spurred the development of Surrey City Centre, and given rise to our Innovation Boulevard partnership with the City of Surrey and the Fraser Health Authority. And on Burnaby Mountain, we have drawn the community to our campus with the development of UniverCity, a model sustainable community that has earned environmental awards and international recognition.

The thread that runs through all of these city-building initiatives is engagement. As the National Research Network attests, the best university/city relationships are based not on “discrete transactions” or “partnerships of expediency,” but rather on “identifying shared interests, … co-creating ambitious goals and working together to achieve them.”

Simon Fraser University is leading the way in showing how this can be done, something we hope to advance even further with this year’s Community Summit. From a research activities showcase Friday (Oct. 30), to housing affordability dialogues Monday and Tuesday (Nov. 2 & 3), to a major public forum Wednesday (Nov. 4) on the role of arts in city-building with author/historian Teju Cole and singer/activist Buffy Sainte-Marie, we invite you to join us in a week-long series of events about city-building that are themselves an exercise in city-building.   

With your engagement, we will learn and show how to make our precious city even better.