I’ve spent much of the last month preparing a major research proposal for the Ontario Research Fund (ORF), entitled “Integrated Decision Support for Sustainable Communities”. We’ve assembled a great research team, with professors from a number of different departments, across the schools of engineering, information, architecture, and arts and science. We’ve held meetings with a number of industrial companies involved in software for data analytics and 3D modeling, consultancy companies involved in urban planning and design, and people from both provincial and city government. We started putting this together in September, and were working to a proposal deadline at the end of January.

And then this week, out of the blue, the province announced that it was cancelling the funding program entirely, “in light of current fiscal challenges”. The best bit in the letter I received was:

The work being done by researchers in this province is recognized and valued. This announcement is not a reflection of the government’s continued commitment through other programs that provides support to the important work being done by researchers.

I’ve searched hard for the “other programs” they mention, but there don’t appear to be any. It’s increasingly hard to get any finding for research, especially trans-disciplinary research. Here’s the abstract from our proposal:

Our goal is to establish Ontario as a world leader in building sustainable communities, through the use of data analytics tools that provide decision-makers with a more complete understanding of how cities work. We will bring together existing expertise in data integration, systems analysis, modeling, and visualization to address the information needs of citizens and policy-makers who must come together to re-invent towns and cities as the basis for a liveable, resilient, carbon-neutral society. The program integrates the work of a team of world-class researchers, and builds on the advantages Ontario enjoys as an early adopter of smart grid technologies and open data initiatives.

The long-term sustainability of Ontario’s quality of life and economic prosperity depends on our ability to adopt new, transformative approaches to urban design and energy management. The transition to clean energy and the renewal of urban infrastructure must go hand-in-hand, to deliver improvements across a wide range of indicators, including design quality, innovation, lifestyle, transportation, energy efficiency and social justice. Design, planning and decision-making must incorporate a systems-of-systems view, to encompass the many processes that shape modern cities, and the complex interactions between them.

Our research program integrates emerging techniques in five theme areas that bridge the gap between decision-making processes for building sustainable cities and the vast sources of data on social demographics, energy, buildings, transport, food, water and waste:

  • Decision-Support and Public Engagement: We begin by analyzing the needs of different participants, and develop strategies for active engagement;
  • Visualization: We will create collaborative and immersive visualizations to enhance participatory decision-making;
  • Modelling and Simulation: We will develop a model integration framework to bring together models of different systems that define the spatio-temporal and socio-economic dynamics of cities, to drive our visualizations;
  • Data Privacy: We will assess the threats to privacy of all citizens that arise when detailed data about everyday activities is mined for patterns and identify appropriate techniques for protecting privacy when such data is used in the modeling and analysis process;
  • Data Integration and Management: We will identify access paths to the data sources needed to drive our simulations and visualizations, and incorporate techniques for managing and combining very large datasets.

These themes combine to provide an integrated approach to intelligent, data-driven planning and decision-making. We will apply the technologies we develop in a series of community-based design case studies, chosen to demonstrate how our approach would apply to increasingly complex problems such as energy efficiency, urban intensification, and transportation. Our goal is to show how an integrated approach can improve the quality and openness of the decision-making process, while taking into account the needs of diverse stakeholders, and the inter-dependencies between policy, governance, finance and sustainability in city planning.

Because urban regions throughout the world face many of the same challenges, this research will allow Ontario to develop a technological advantage in areas such as energy management and urban change, and enabling a new set of creative knowledge-based services address the needs of communities and governments. Ontario is well placed to develop this as a competitive advantage, due to its leadership in the collection and maintenance of large datasets in areas such as energy management, social well-being, and urban infrastructure. We will leverage this investment and create a world-class capability not available in any other jurisdiction.

Incidentally, we spent much of last fall preparing a similar proposal for the previous funding round. That was rejected on the basis that we weren’t clear enough what the project outcomes would be, and what the pathways to commercialization were. For our second crack at it, we were planning to focus much more specifically on the model integration part, by developing a software framework for coupling urban system models, based on a detailed requirements analysis of the stakeholders involved in urban design and planning, with case studies on neighbourhood re-design and building energy retro-fits. Our industrial partners have identified a number of routes to commercial services that would make use of such software. Everything was coming together beautifully. *Sigh*.

Now we have to find some other source of funding for this. Contributions welcome!


  1. Hi Steve,
    Multiply your frustrations by at least 6 (I don’t want to actually count how many collaborations IBM was willing to support but it was more than a hand’s worth). However, there really are other programs supported by the Ontario government and there is also the federal funding agencies.
    The particularly frustrating thing is that ORF Research Excellence awards allowed for curiousity driven research with a potential for commercialization and they were very open about how that could be interpreted. The reviewing processes were fair, open and transparent, and, as someone who was able to actively participate in both sides, I can say that it was as good as it possibly could be.

    I am much more concerned with the ongoing trend to cut away at funding for research in an era where the time from curiousity to research to innovation to commercialization is short and getting shorter. Even if we believe that this is a temporary (two-year) hiatus and if we believe that the federal efforts to cut scientific research funding by up to 10% are also temporary, the two years is going to be enough to set Canada back significantly.

    Canadians have always been leaders in pure research. (We fall far short on the conversion of research to wealth for Canada but that’s a separate issue.) Let’s hope that this latest decision really is just a shuffling of funds (apparently to Southwest Ontario Economic Development) and that Round 8 will begin in Spring 2013 or maybe even that Round 7 will be re-instated starting this spring.

    And let’s see if Canadians are as smart now as we were 144 years ago when we knew better than to eat our seed corn.

  2. Ah hell, sorry to hear that. Given it’s moving in a commercialisation direction, is there any scope for going the route that something like hypothes.is has gone, and going to kickstarter to raise funds? (And would any of the potential commercial interested parties actually be willing to put their money up?)

  3. @Dan Olner : As Stephen says above, this is still curiousity-driven research. Although we have to demonstrate commercialization pathways, these are 5-10 years down the road (it’s a five year project anyway). And we’re looking for $4 million to get it up and running; the real challenge is having long term funding in place to recruit and retain a talented team of researchers (grad students, postdocs, etc). I think kickstarter is great for small software projects, but I don’t see it scaling to support this kind of research program. Plus, kickstarter relies on the coolness factor for viral marketing. Serious, long-term research never looks cool to outsiders.

  4. Is it common for provincial governments to fund academic researchers in Canada, or was this a one-off effort from Ontario? In the U.S., academic research seems to be funded exclusively with federal dollars.

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