Turning Vancouver into a High-Tech, Green Oasis

How entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and city government are collaborating to change the face of a city

Pristine waters, majestic snow-capped mountains, and sprawling parks are the images people think of when they imagine greater Vancouver. The region’s expansive natural terrain is a big draw for tourists and locals alike, but with increasing carbon emissions from cars and other technologies, the natural oasis is in need of protection. The city and surrounding area decided to fight tech with tech, and government agencies, nonprofits, and corporations have utilized modern technology for various initiatives that are making Vancouver both greener and more tech-friendly every day.

The city of Vancouver itself has instituted a slew of various initiatives to make Vancouver greener by 2020. The city’s chief digital officer, Jessie Adcock, says that the city has five main long-term strategies: the Greenest City Action Plan, the Healthy City Strategy, the Economic Action Plan, the Renewable City Strategy, and the Digital Strategy.  The city’s four-year digital strategy was approved in 2013 with fifteen priority initiatives to be delivered over four years, Adcock says. This year, that strategy will be getting a revamp. “Most strategies do really well when they have clear objectives,” she says. “We’re going to deliver the last of those priorities this year. So what does that mean for the future? The nature of technology is such that it never stops changing. Four years ago, our strategy was built around things like mobile and digital transformation, and getting the building blocks together.” The next phase of the strategy will focus on the newest waves of technology, like self-driving cars and drones.

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Jessie Adcock, City of Vancouver, CDO

The digital strategy is centered on four main pillars that together will create sustainability and green objectives. The first of those four relates to engagement and access—how Vancouver can use technology better to interface with its citizens. The second utilizes the city’s infrastructure to create a network foundation that optimizes how the city uses its digital network to deploy smart city initiatives, which are directly tied to sustainable and green initiatives. The third and fourth relate to the digital economy and organizational maturity. “In terms of green initiatives, we find ourselves seeing a lot of intersection between green objectives, sustainable objectives, and digital across all four of those pillars,” says Adcock.

Robert Brennan Hart, Politik, Founder and CEO

The digital strategy helps support much of the Greenest City Action Plan. The initiative addresses Vancouver’s environmental challenges by working with the city council, residents, businesses, and other organizations to set measurable and attainable sustainability goals. The action plan aims to reduce the average distance driven per resident by 20 percent, reduce energy use and green house gas emissions in existing buildings by 20 percent, reduce solid landfill and incinerator waste by 50 percent, and increase access to nature, clean water, local food, and clean air. So far, the city has decreased its carbon dioxide emissions from residential and commercial buildings from about 1.2 million tonnes in 2008 to about 1.14 million tonnes in 2014.  The average distance driven since 2008 has decreased by 21 percent, and the city has planted 37,000 of its intended 150,000 trees. All of these initiatives share a goal of being completed by 2020.

Robert Brennan Hart, the Founder and CEO of Politik, a technology media company headquartered in Vancouver, recently hosted the largest Canadian enterprise technology event, Interzone, in the city. Before creating Politik, Hart founded the Canadian Cloud Council, a national not-for-profit association focused on accelerating Canada’s cloud computing industry, and has seen the evolution of Vancouver into a greener, more tech-friendly space. Hart says that the impetus has been the global awareness of climate change’s impacts on the environment in the long term. “The hyper-acceleration of the internet has seen technology move from the narrow confines of the largest governments and corporations to become an integral part of all aspects of human endeavor,” commented Hart. “Across its various manifestations in individual interactions, economic organizations, and social structures, it has had a greater impact on the human condition than the accumulated progress of the five thousand years of civilization that preceded it. Society, for the most part, has finally acknowledged our impact on the natural ecosystem and big industry can no longer ignore the alternative technologies being created to reduce this apocalyptic footprint.”

British Columbia’s diverse, Internet-driven economy, unlike it’s prairie neighbors to the west, has ensured the province’s ongoing sustainability through the darkest days of the global oil and gas recession. “Canada’s economy has been largely dependent on the success of its manufacturing and energy sectors in the past,” said Hart.  “Needless to say, there has been significant oligarchic resistance in some provinces to embrace policies that support the movement from a resource to a knowledge-based economy. Everyone has heard of Slack, Hootsuite and Plenty of Fish–all Vancouver based technology juggernauts–but can you name a comparable success story in Alberta? I can’t.”

“We find ourselves seeing a lot of intersection between green objectives, sustainable objectives, and digital.” Jessie Adcock, City of Vancouver, CDO

It isn’t just government agencies that are striving for greener change. Nonprofit Electronics Recycling Association (ERA) targets reuse and recycling technology. Founded in 2004, the organization addresses the increasing issue of electronic waste and an “increasing digital divide.” ERA is a reuse facility that takes old retiring IT assets from companies and individuals across the country, removes data from them, and refurbishes them for reuse through a donation program and a low-cost sales program, says marketing and communications manager Kristi Gartner. The organization effectively reduces e-waste on a digitally secure platform while increasing access to technology for Canada’s lower-income bracket. “It’s first and foremost keeping this equipment out of landfills,” Gartner says. The association also raises awareness by hosting community events and partnering with various agencies. It provides accessible information on alternative options for disposing their technology, Gartner says.

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Photo by Shutterstock.com/ SurangaSL

In 2015, ERA partnered with Oxford Properties and hosted events at three of its sites, with collection cases and digital shredders on site. It provided opportunities for the public to bring in their equipment, shred their hard drives, and donate the equipment with the help of Oxford. Since its inception in 2004, the nonprofit has grown from one depot in Calgary to five depots that serve Calgary and Vancouver.

Major corporate names like Lush Cosmetics, Mountain Equipment Co-Op, and North Shore Credit Union are also taking aims to be greener. In 2012, the credit union began using automatic lighting systems, low water-flow fixtures, and products made from recyclable components. Port Metro Vancouver, a shipping and transportation company, started using hybrid vehicles that same year for its corporate fleet, and reduced roughly 3.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions as a result in 2012 alone. The energy savings also translate to cost savings for these companies, which is part of what Vancouver city officials are hoping will encourage other businesses to get greener.

Ian McKay, the CEO of the Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC), says that green jobs have increased by 19 percent from 2010 to 2013, which is an increase from 16,700 in 2010 to 20,000 in 2013. According to the most recent VEC Green Jobs report, the commission estimates there will be up to 33,300 green and local jobs by the end of the 2020 fiscal year. As a city, Vancouver has one of the more robust and strict focuses on the growing technology sector and prioritizing clean tech in the green economy, McKay says. “Vancouver has a history of moving toward sustainable economic development primarily because our city was brought up on the resource-based sector—forestry, mining, fishing, shipping, all that sort of stuff,” he says. “Those industries have, for decades, been looking for sustainable solutions for their extraction, processing, and shipping. We’ve been a natural home for an evolving, clean technology sector. As a result of the work that was done by the resource-based sector and the current class of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, Vancouver has about 25 percent of Canada’s clean tech industry, including companies, jobs, and venture capital flow.”

Together, these initiatives represent foresight and a conglomerate of more than twenty different agencies in government, nonprofit, and corporate structures using technology to help Vancouver live up to its green reputation.

Robert Brennan Hart photo by Pinstripe Productions