It’s no secret Vancouver is vying to be at the forefront of the burgeoning cleantech industry in Canada, but can the city’s green credentials and hip tech sector translate into success for a market that has seen its fair share of ups and downs as the political and financial landscape shifts due in part to global trends?
Vancouver has two large universities – UBC and Simon Fraser- plus the highly regarded BCIT (BC Institute of Technology), along with a number of other college and university affiliations. The success of homegrown Hootsuite, Electronic Arts, plus the recent settling of Microsoft in town, not to mention the tech-dependent film industry, all compliment the natural migration patters of young entrepreneurs to our buzzing West Coast city – a natural norther extension to Silicon Valley and Seattle. Throw in the international factor of being Canada’s gateway to Asia, our ports and accompanying shipping / time zone / supply chain advantages, our renewed interest in reinventing the local economy away from raw resource extraction towards innovative ways to up-cycle, add value, or create efficiency in those sectors, and it all starts looking good!
From Ballard Power to General Fusion, and from Globe to TED Talks, Vancouver seems primed to be a natural hub for all things cleantech. We have a significant global presence on the green building scene, excellent civic policies encouraging the development of new business in the sector, and a renown international reputation earned via exposure dating back to Expo 86 and carrying through to the Olympics and more.
And yet…it’s not quite taking off the way it seems it should be. The reasons why are not clear, but there are some obvious culprits and likely a few less clear factors.
First and foremost Vancouver’s real estate costs are prohibitive (*see update below), which stems from a natural constriction on city growth due to geographical factors. Density helps, but accompanying infrastructure seems lagging – transit is good but not great, car sharing hasn’t exploded in the way many foresaw, Uber is banned still, and biking is great during the summer but not the half of the year when it rains non-stop. Commercial and business real estate is almost as out of reach as housing and hard to find in the “cool” areas. You have to really travel to the distant industrial parks to find the type of spaces many growth-oriented companies need once they’re past the prototyping and concept development stage.
Another interesting factor that at first glance seems like it should be a positive motivator – low electricity costs – may actually be an inhibitor for organic growth. We take it for granted that power is both cheap and clean (thanks to our abundant hydro-electric production in the province) and it reduces the perceived necessity for increased efficiency, storage, and alternative source generation. Furthermore, the two biggest growth areas of cleantech – PV solar and wind – are not commercially viable on a large scale in Vancouver itself. Our climate and geography bless us with abundant rain and little wind, making it less than idea for testing and developing those two key sectors. Obviously you don’t have to travel too far to get to the windy Pacific coastline or the sunny interior, but it’s just far enough to be out of sight.
We can also look to changing politics – both federal and provincial – as potential culprits. It’s no secret the previous federal government heavily favored the oil and gas industry when it came to promoting and supporting industry, and the current BC Liberals seem committed to the end to push the LNG industry in the province. We are seeing both a fresh set of priorities from the Trudeau Liberals, and a slow-motion collapse of the LNG prospects that Clark has been championing, so hopefully that will translate into fresh priorities and encouraging policies and support for what promises to be a bigger growth industry than fossil fuels.
For now, initiatives like the Vancouver-based Cleantech Exchange are keeping the fire burning, while many medium-sized companies quietly grow and develop into serious players in the field. But whether the city can become the cleantech hub it seems almost destined to be, only time will tell. We’re excited to be a part of it. We hope that by helping start-ups and small-to-medium sized firms access the professional business services and communication / marketing support they need to carve a space for themselves in the global market, we can play our part in helping establish Vancouver as an international center for green technology and clean energy & water solutions.
*UPDATE: The cost of living is officially having an impact on our tech sector, reported the Financial Post on Monday March 14th