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Cool Ideas: The Critical Nexus Between Research and Innovation in Northern and Remote Canada

This op-ed was originally published Ottawa's The Hill Times on May 9, 2019.

Northern and Remote Canada face distinct challenges that affect everything from the quality of life, to economic development and public safety. A lack of key infrastructure, weak basic government services, difficulties accessing high quality education, challenging geography and isolation, systemic food insecurity, and the legacies of colonialism remain important problems, even after decades of policy and program adjustments. Research by academics, practitioners and thought leaders proposed partial solutions in an attempt to inform decision making. Yet on the ground improvements have generally been incremental, inconsistent and slow to materialise.

If progress to date has been slow and demonstrably uneven, could Canada produce better outcomes? One option is to break with path-dependency and encourage fresh and creative thinking, considering radical approaches with faster and broadly-based impacts. One promising avenue would be to look carefully at new and emerging technologies and to focus on the social situation northerners want for their communities in 2050, rather than emphasize the shortcomings of the North c. 2019.  Importantly,  residents and organizations of Northern and remote Canada should drive and inform this research.

New and emerging technological developments could address a number of the most significant, longstanding challenges facing the Indigenous, northern and remote reaches of the country. Some of them, such as food factories that provide wholesome, locally produced vegetables, could be genuine game-changers. That said, not all innovative technologies will lead to improvements. Many will come with a host of unintended consequences, even if they are generally beneficial to the country as a whole. Automated trucks add production efficiencies but tend to reduce the number of jobs.  Other innovations present more challenges than benefits, introducing new problems or exacerbating old ones.  E-commerce, which undermines the business models of many small-town stores, is an example of the latter.

Construction-based 3D printing is an example of a new and evolving technology that could address a fundamental challenge for Northern and remote Canada – the widespread housing crisis. 3D printing construction involves the input of select materials, such as crushed stone and sand, into an additive manufacturing machine (a printer), and their subsequent extrusion from the machine as a construction material (such as concrete). The printer, which operates with long, moveable and programable arms, can layer materials in just about any shape imaginable.

The availability and affordability of homes is a serious problem in many Northern towns - particularly Indigenous communities. 3D printing technology can build homes in much less time, and at substantially lower costs, than traditional construction methods. For instance, China is building whole suburbs using 3D printing techniques[1]; developing nations use 3D-printed homes to house urban poor[2]; and Russian companies have built small homes in under 24 hours for approximately $10,000 each[3]. Given that a new public housing unit in Nunavut costs between $400,000 and $550,000[4], and that the Territory is facing a major backlog in housing stock, it is not hard to imagine the potential advantages of 3D printing.

However, 3D printing is far from a sure-bet for Canada’s north. Concrete, for instance, is not an ideal construction material for areas that have permafrost or, worse, degrading permafrost. And it is not clear how 3D printed homes would perform in the face of harsh climates, mold and heavy snow-loads. Even if 3D printed homes performed well, the introduction of the technology to the region could prove highly disruptive for the local construction industry and its workers.    

That said, it is still worth looking at 3D printing and other innovative technologies for the purposes of addressing northern challenges.  Canada needs to find ways to respond faster and more creatively to regional needs. Other promising technologies include road-free transportation (such as dirigibles and drones) to get around a lack of transportation infrastructure and to reach remote locations.  Remote surgery via Internet-enabled robotics could reduce the need for patients of having to fly to major urban centres for surgery.  The health care system could enjoy substantial cost-savings if the right technologies are adopted and – and this is a big “if” – if they work effectively.

Research is integral to this potential technological transformation of the Canadian North.  Northerners should be consulted about new and emerging technologies before they are implemented, to identify problems and opportunities and to develop ameliorative strategies.  Detailed analysis can identify areas where technological solutions are urgently needed for the North and could spark the interest of early stage researchers or technology firms. The North must not be a passive onlooker, relegated to a late adopter of technologies developed by, for, and in the South.

The Centre for the North’s “Cool Ideas” series at the Conference Board of Canada is designed to spark a region-wide discussion on emerging technologies.  Produced by Dr. Ken Coates and Dr. Carin Holroyd of the University of Saskatchewan, Cool Ideas looks at one technology sector at a time and considers the state of the technology, potential benefits and disruptive implications for the North, and the policy ramifications of prospective new products and services.  The goal of Cool Ideas is not to champion technological change or to critique new technologies. It aspires, instead, to demonstrate that thoughtful analysis and engagement with northerners can increase awareness of technological risks and benefits, and supports the Canadian North in becoming an active agent for innovation.

[1] Costrel and Rega, “The First 3D Printed House is Coming.”

[2] South China Morning Post, “Can 3D-Printers Make Cheap Homes?”

[3] Molloy, “This Incredibly Cheap House Was 3D Printed in Just 24 Hours”; and Garfield, “A

Robot Can Print This $64,000 House in as Few as 8 Hours.”

[4] Nunavut Housing Corporation, Nunavut Housing Corporation’s Appearance Before the Standing

Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, Issue 4; Report of the Standing Senate Committee on

Aboriginal Peoples, We Can Do Better, 29.

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