Fostering Innovation & Learning with the Teaching City

by Oct 11, 2018Economy, Society

Daniel Hoornweg

Dan Hoornweg is now a professor of energy and urban systems at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, a role he steps into after more than thirty years working on sustainable cities, including twenty years with the World Bank.


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As far back as the 6th century and the Academy of Gundishapur in the Persian Empire, teaching hospitals have anchored the medical profession. Every would-be doctor must spend at least a year or two in one of the world’s 1000-plus licensed teaching hospitals. Most medical breakthroughs originate at one of these teaching (research) hospitals. With many movies and televisions shows like Scrubs, ER, and Grey’s Anatomy, we are all aware of the travails of medical students.

The world spends far more money on urban infrastructure than health care, and there are about four-times as many urban practitioners as health care providers, yet, up until last year, there was not a single teaching city. The City of Oshawa is hoping to start a new trend – similar to a teaching hospital. The City is now serving as a ‘teaching city,’ complete with urban interns and city-based research.

Oshawa as Teaching City started through a partnership with the local University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT). UOIT is a young, technology-based university. With over 10,000 students, a broad array of academic offerings including social sciences and health care, and familiarity with emerging technologies, the University provides an excellent research partner for the City. The partnership quickly expanded to include local Durham College, University of Toronto’s Civil Engineering Department, the Canadian Urban Institute, and the Oshawa campus of Trent University. The partners signed a Memorandum of Understanding on June 2, 2017. The first year progress report is available online.

Existing and soon-to-be launched Teaching City projects include:

  • The Diversity and Inclusion Plan was the inaugural Teaching City project with research findings adopted in principle as the City’s first diversity and inclusion plan. Approved by City Council in November 2017, the Diversity and Inclusion Plan provides a strategic framework to guide the City as it continues to work toward an inclusive and welcoming city for all.
  • The first-ever Teaching City Hackathon took place in March 2018. Providing students an opportunity to propose a solution to a public policy challenge around the theme of improving residential rental housing in Oshawa, the event saw 10 teams of students from all three organizations – supported and mentored by faculty, City staff, and community and business leaders – compete for a chance to win $1,500.
  • On May 14, 2018, Oshawa and its Teaching City partners celebrated a successful first year with the opening of the Teaching City Hub in downtown Oshawa. The hub is an open-concept space designed to facilitate Teaching City projects with the City’s education and research partners, including students, faculty and staff, and the general public.
  • In 2018, Oshawa, in partnership with key stakeholders including Teaching City partners embarked on a community-driven initiative to compete to win up to $10 million via the Infrastructure Canada Smart Cities Challenge. Submitted in April 2018, the City’s submission focused on empowering residents in low-income neighbourhoods by improving access to digital technology and the ability to access the services required to fully participate in the economy. The submission aimed to enhance economic and social equality across Oshawa.
  • In May 2018, the City began a two-year Stormwater Pond Water Quality Research Study in conjunction with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. The project offers an exceptional opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to learn about the importance of stormwater management in urban regions.
  • As one of five municipalities selected to team up with the Municipal Natural Assets Initiative (MNAI) Oshawa will have access to expertise, support and guidance from MNAI to identify and adequately account for natural assets in the City’s financial planning and asset management programs.
  • The City is collaborating with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and the Oshawa Senior Citizens Centres to better understand both barriers and promoters of active transportation of older adults.
  • The City is joining the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research at the University of Toronto, AUG Signals, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and North Line Canada in a research study to monitor air quality and traffic movements in Oshawa’s downtown core.
  • A recent Durham College School of Media, Art & Design graduate will collaborate with Teaching City partners to create a mural at the Teaching City Hub. The artwork will reflect the partnership’s key principles: collaboration, innovation, applied research, experiential learning and knowledge transfer.
  • The City Idea Lab is a collaborative, course-based pilot project between the City and its academic partners that will offer experiential learning opportunities to post-secondary students via a credit course at the Teaching City Hub. Starting with the 2018/2019 school year, students will identify urban issues and collaborate with City staff to co-design possible solutions.
  • The City of Oshawa, and larger municipality of Durham Region, are working toward ISO 37120 certification (and ongoing sharing of sustainability city data).
  • UOIT students in the newly launched Bachelor of Technology in Sustainable Energy Systems, and those taking the Minor in Sustainability, will enjoy a three-year program (12 field trips) to learn first-hand how energy and materials flow through the City of Oshawa. An accompanying app is being developed that will provide real-time energy, food and water use along with associated GHG emissions and solid waste.

Similar to how teaching hospitals spread around the world, and how networks now exist for researchers and medical students, and similar to how teaching hospitals foster a spirit of innovation and learning, teaching cities will hopefully emerge as valuable partners for the world’s cities. The headlong rush to urbanize urgently needs new partnerships.

We may need to wait a few years for the next George Clooney or Ellen Pompeo to lead the airways with a group of young urban interns, however as cities around the world welcome another 2.5 billion residents over the next 25 years, they need all the help they can get. Drama guaranteed.

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