Field of dreams

With the development of the Great Northern Way campus, John Robinson’s vision of a world-leading sustainability think-tank is inching one step closer to reality.

Credit: Noel Hendrickson

Unlike many sustainability experts, the front man for the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) doesn’t want to tell you how to live. He doesn’t begrudge you your SUV, your Maui vacation, or your air-conditioned suburban villa with the backyard pool. He’d just like you to play a little game he helped design – preferably in CIRS’s swank, futuristic 100-seat theatre with the touch-screen control panels built right into the armrests. Fasten your seat belts. John Robinson and his co-conspirators want to take you – and our common future – on one hell of a ride. Except he can’t. Yet. That theatre, or “Group Decision Environment,” as it’s called in the CIRS promo material, doesn’t quite exist. Nor does any part of the CIRS building, slated for the Great Northern Way campus (the still-mostly-mud site between Main and Clark being developed jointly by no less than four academic institutions.) But that’s not for lack of trying. Robinson started working on CIRS in 2000, and groundbreaking has been repeatedly delayed: the centre was first going to open in 2006, then 2007, yet the first clod of dirt remains unturned. Money has been part of the problem. Cobbling together smallish grants, Robinson (who’s had to do most of the fundraising himself, without the help of UBC’s institutional fundraising machine) has secured about $33 million of the projected $55 million he needs to get the sustainability centre built. But now an odd coupling may get Robinson the last of the needed cash. The new Masters of Digital Media (MDM) program, designed to churn out world-class gaming experts and fast-track the growth of Vancouver’s gaming industry, is also looking to build itself a home on the Great Northern Way campus. But unlike CIRS, the MDM program has had little trouble with fundraising. The B.C. government alone has committed more than $40 million to it, with an estimated $20 million of that marked for a new building. So talks are underway to merge the two buildings. The two institutions would have distinct visual identities, but would share infrastructure (like the high-tech theatre), and gain economies of scale, thereby decreasing each program’s individual construction bill. If the idea flies, the influx of cash from MDM could see construction of the shared building finally start in the fall. It’s tantalizingly close. But the groundbreaking for CIRS must have seemed tantalizingly close many times before. What’s kept Robinson going through the project’s endless-seeming obstacles? Robinson is a soft-spoken man, but he sounds downright steely when he explains: “I started working on this stuff in 1976. I’ve studied sustainability to death. Now I want to actually make it happen.” Robinson aims to make sustainability happen by bringing together innovators and decision makers. At his sustainability centre, UBC, SFU, BCIT and the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design’s top eco-academics will collaborate on cutting-edge research, turn grad students into tomorrow’s green leaders, and work closely with government and industry to make sustainability reality. The UBC and SFU academics would do the more theoretical research, looking at, for example, psychological barriers to sustainability. Emily Carr’s people might study sustainable industrial design. BCIT types would address the applied-tech angle, figuring out how to improve solar power cells or sustainable construction techniques. While UBC and SFU already have academic programs focusing on sustainability, Emily Carr and BCIT don’t. CIRS would consolidate all these institutions’ sustainability brainiacs in one place. It would also rent office space to other key sustainability players like BC Hydro, environmental groups, and sustainability-minded private corporations (BC Hydro has already paid for its long-term lease). The idea is to make CIRS a sustainability hub, facilitating cross-fertilization and connections. The CIRS sustainability dream team would work in a showcase, über-enviro-friendly building that Robinson describes as “a living laboratory.” Great green ideas would be tested right in – or on – the CIRS building itself. Psychological barriers to sustainability could be tested in the theatre. A sustainably designed chair could be tested in the building’s offices. A more efficient solar panel could be tested on the building’s solar wall. And with folks like BC Hydro right down the hall, solutions could go from concept to market-ready at warp speed, helping propel sustainability into the big time. “This is a Holy Grail building,” says Mark Holland. The former City of Vancouver sustainability manager did some initial scoping work on CIRS, and he’s been admiring the project ever since. “This is not just a polite building that doesn’t harm the environment. This building is trying to be generous to the planet and to its neighbours,” says Holland, now a partner at Holland Barrs Planning Group, a sustainability consulting firm with international clientele. CIRS would be physically generous by (eventually) producing more energy than it consumes and actually cleansing air and water as it uses them. Socially, CIRS is supposed to be the antithesis of an ivory tower, sharing facilities (such as its green roof and theatre) with the public, and sharing the technological advances it develops with industry (except for technology produced with its private-sector partners). The project’s soaring ideals attract the best of the best, says Holland: “Any building that steps that far out of the current paradigm is a flashpoint for innovators and innovation.” One of those innovators is, of course, Vancouver’s legendary green architect Peter Busby. CIRS was born out of a brainstorming session between Robinson and Busby, and despite the endless delays, Busby is unflaggingly enthusiastic about it. Busby claims everything in the building will be cutting edge – so cutting edge, in fact, Busby isn’t quite sure he can pull it all off, though he clearly relishes the challenge (and the resulting attention). “All eyes are on us,” says Busby. “One example: we’re aiming to be greenhouse-gas neutral. We’d be the first building in North America to even come close. The closest any other building has gotten is about 40 per cent.” However, to achieve greenhouse-gas neutrality, the CIRS building uses solar power – and working off solar power isn’t easy in Vancouver, given that the sun practically disappears in winter when power is needed most. “If we were just in Calgary, it would work perfectly,” says Busby, somewhat ruefully. Regardless of whether the building hits its targets or falls shy initially, it should always be top-of-the-line because it’s designed to be upgraded. “It won’t ever get dated. Everything’s changeable, so as we learn we can incorporate updated technology into the building,” Busby explains. (That’s a key principle of sustainable design: minimizing obsolescence.) Moreover, Busby wants to prove that a cutting-edge sustainable building can be built for the same price as a regular building, neatly eliminating industry’s excuses for foot-dragging on building green. That’s one of the reasons Tom Osdoba is so keen on CIRS. “Something that’s really iconic makes a big difference,” says the former City of Vancouver sustainability manager, pointing to similar buildings in Portland (the Natural Capital Center) and Minneapolis (the Phillips Eco-Enterprise Centre), which he says instigated major change in local construction markets. “People respond really positively to visionary development,” Osdoba notes. In fact, Osdoba hopes the entire area around the Great Northern Way campus will be established as a “sustainability precinct.” This CIRS ripple effect has already been felt at BCIT. According to Donald Yen, head of BCIT’s School of Construction and the Environment, the faculty was galvanized both by the complex technical challenges the building posed and the endeavour’s noble goal of accelerating sustainability. BCIT’s specific contributions to CIRS include its expertise in solar power, green roof technology and building construction. But Yen says grappling with how to participate in CIRS helped the institution embed sustainability into all its programs, not just those directly related to CIRS. (In contrast, the Emily Carr rep on the CIRS steering committee, Monique Fouquet, said her institution is still figuring out how exactly it will contribute to the project.) Changing construction techniques and course curricula is one thing. Changing people is a whole other ball game – or video game, in this case, because gaming is John Robinson’s not-so-secret weapon in the battle for sustainability. “Most people are alienated from science and politics. We have information, but it’s just noise because we don’t know what to do with it. But the average Sim City player knows urban planning better than most urban planners, and they learn it because they want to, because it’s fun. Play is fundamental to learning,” says Robinson. “So we want to get people into sustainability through video games.” Stephen Sheppard, a CIRS team member who works on the psychological, social and cultural barriers to sustainability, has been testing the idea in his mini-theatre at UBC and says it really works. “People aren’t interested in abstract data, even maps. But when we put them into a 3D scene, fly them around, walk them through it – especially if it’s a place they recognize – they’re very engaged.” The CIRS theatre will have a main panoramic Imax-type screen, plus additional screens and nifty moving seats in order to create a total immersion experience for viewers. “We’ll be able to take people anywhere in the GVRD and plop them down and say OK, in 2050 if we don’t stop climate change, this is what it will be like,” Sheppard says. “They can choose different scenarios, and immediately experience the consequence of their choices.” Fill that theatre with citizens and they can see for themselves what sustainability means and why it matters. Fill it with high-level decision makers and they might really start hustling on the changes we need to make – or at least that’s the hope. Gaming is not only a good way to engage people in general; it’s a particularly good way to engage the up-and-coming generation, who’ll be pivotal to achieving sustainability. That’s something Robinson is keenly aware of, being the father of five university-aged sons, devoted gamers all. Robinson’s kids bought him the video game World of Warcraft two Christmases ago, and Robinson plays whenever he can. “I consider it research,” Robinson says with a grin. (CIRS’s keen interest in gaming is another reason the proposed building share with the Masters of Digital Media program makes so much sense.) Sure, the gaming stuff is cool, says Mark Roseland, and so is the building with all the bells and whistles. But for the Director of SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development, the most potent aspect of CIRS will be the human side of the building, and the ongoing connections with others of like mind it will offer. “We [sustainability academics] are still pretty small within our individual institutions. To be able to actually get some synergy from collaborating, and to have a physical infrastructure to bring it all together – that’s very powerful. People think it’s esoteric, but if we’re going to make the changes we need to make, I think it’s essential.” Roseland is also keen on CIRS ’s potential to do an end run around laggard governments. “Thirty years ago there was a sense that we could only make these changes through state intervention. But since the state has shown little interest, we’re recognizing that the market has a huge role to play.” That’s why CIRS will put major emphasis on developing private partnerships. “The private sector does most of what gets done to the planet,” Robinson agrees. So CIRS will target areas with the potential to offer competitive advantages, then work with the private sector to create and market fixes. “We want to use our research and testing facilities as a springboard to exporting solutions around the world,” Robinson explains. The sense of optimism inherent in that last statement is a reoccurring theme with Robinson, and with the entire CIRS project. Despite all the obstacles CIRS has faced, Robinson and the CIRS crew remain astoundingly positive about the enterprise. Like all good leaders, Robinson credits his team. “People love to do something good,” says Robinson. “There are over 150 people working on this. None are paid, except a few staff. They’re doing it because they want to do good.” Maybe so, but they also seem to really like working with Robinson, perhaps because he lacks the doom-and-gloom-laden dogmatism of many of his fellow eco-warriors. “Many environmentalists have this certitude, this condescension… I’m a little suspicious of the idea of having ‘the answer,’” admits Robinson. “My PhD dissertation was called Both Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air. I’ve come to this pretty deeply held view that it is not about finding the truth and telling people, but about finding out what works. That’s why I like the gaming thing – people get to try things out. CIRS is intended to be a tool for putting together people from very different backgrounds and coming to this emerging judgment about what works.” Will Robinson’s uncertainty principle – and his video games – help us launch a sustainable society? Who knows. But if nothing else, we can at least have some good times while trying.