Guest blog post by Rob McMonagle, Senior Advisor – the Green Economy, Economic Development & Culture at the City of Toronto.
Suppose you’ve come up with a brilliant idea – a cheap alternative to treating waste water using biological processes. The market for your start-up company is global. Your applied research is done by a local university and now you need samples of waste water to test to see if the process works in the real world. Who do you turn to?
Next, say you know that there is a better way to process “waste” wood than the conventional “grind and dump” process that many municipalities follow in North America. You think you have a successful business model but how do you get access to the downed trees to prove the concept?
Or lastly, imagine you’ve got a new way of storing energy. You’re out of the lab, you’ve tested the concept, and you’ve got investors and potential buyers clamoring at the door. One problem – before anyone invests or buys they want to see a full scale system operating. You need a short term use of waterfront property for a pilot, but waterfront property is well outside of your budget.
All three scenarios are real and based in Toronto. They all sit in the “valley of death” that new companies face – where early funds and support are not enough before the sales orders and investors appear. They needed collaboration with the owner of the infrastructure to help them with their applied research, test proof of concepts, or house a pilot. The challenge that all three faced was that their business had no immediate, direct benefit to the infrastructure owner – the City of Toronto. The water treatment plant couldn’t see how this idea applied to them; the waterfront property owner didn’t have the resources to manage the internal processes needed to lease the land, and the costs for disposing of waste wood was not directly borne by the department responsible for processing the wood.
There are positive examples from the past of collaborative product development where the private sector partnered with government. Artificial hearts and parking meters are just two examples of the results of collaborative public-private partnerships. Globally, many leading municipalities are revisiting what made them successful engines of economic growth in the past and are setting up programs or offices to support collaborative innovation. The Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston is a prime example of this new innovative thinking starting to percolate inside local governments.
Last week, Toronto City Council passed the Green Market Acceleration Program (GMAP) for a two-year pilot period. Run collaboratively by the Toronto Office of Partnerships and Economic Development and Culture, GMAP will allow local businesses to apply to the City to use city infrastructure for applied research, proving concepts and demonstrating new technologies developed here in Toronto.
This will accelerate the development of innovative products for introduction into the market, supporting Toronto firms grow and compete internationally and improving the global competitiveness of Toronto as a region.
A new study by Cleantech Scandinavia identifies that one of the most important partners for cleantech companies are cities. With a diverse business ranging from waste and waste water to energy and infrastructure projects, cities have the potential to drive cleantech innovation and development. Unleashing innovation at the municipal level may be the only way out of the climate change mess we’re in.