Jeffrey Doyle: Getting More of the Environmental Pie

Notwithstanding the difficulties we are going to have in defining and quantifying “the environmental industry”, (those difficulties were discussed in my last blog) it looks like we are going to have one and it looks like it is going to make extensive use of technology. A major challenge to the national capital region will be the re-tooling that is going to be required to apply the huge pool of technology that currently exists in the region to the solution of environmental problems. That pool is generally defined by know-how in the solution of telecommunications problems, the supply of software products and services, the design and marketing of semiconductor devices (the fabless industry) and by a smattering of companies that supply electronic instruments.

There is also a smattering of what could truly be classified as environmental companies, but to say that the region is a powerhouse of environmental technology would be an overstatement. In fact, such powerhouses are few and far between in Canada. Because of the worldwide reputation that Ballard Power has built for the fuel cell industry in Vancouver, we are quick to point to that city as our hotbed of environmental technology. However, it would be stretching things to say that Ballard is an environmental company. It is an energy company that is in the business of supplying power sources that just happen to be more environmentally friendly than traditional sources like gasoline engines. There is not a one-to-one correlation between energy companies and environmental companies; otherwise we would classify every utility (like Hydro One) as an environmental company and that would really distort the numbers.

However, this article was not intended to be a re-hash of my last one, but a discussion of how this region is going to get its share of the environmental pie. That will require a lot of re-tooling in supporting industries like the investment industry, but unless the industry itself (however we define it) is staffed by competent people, it will go nowhere. It will be the people who ultimately determine what products and services we supply and what processes we will use to supply them.

Our most immediate prospects will probably come from the supply of electronic instruments. Not only are they likely to have a lot of the same components as telecommunications devices, they are likely to have built-in communications capabilities and that is something we know a lot about. At the other end of the spectrum is a whole industry aimed at the supply of reports and paperwork related to such things as assessments, audits, feasibility studies and white papers. The prices that such deliverables command are usually geared more to their weight than to anything that contributes to the economy of Canada. Our existing high-tech industry would be wise to stay away from such “opportunities”. In between the two extremes will be plenty of opportunities for project management and for the application of new processes based on such technologies as bio-sensors and organic semiconductors. (These are technologies in which the National Research Council has a strong local presence).

What seems to be lost in the environmental noise making that has been going on in recent months is any discussion about how we are going to re-tool our education system to meet the human resource requirements of this new industry. We do not hear much talk about new faculties or new chairs being established at our universities. Experience has shown that our education system is often out of phase with industry needs. Where the greatest immediate emphasis should probably be placed is at the community college level, because there will be a demand for technologists to do the actual field work. It would be interesting to review some of those “pay-per-pound” documents to see if any of them are addressing the human resource issue in any meaningful way.

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