A century ago, Toronto was home to 200,000 people. The city’s biggest employer – Massey Manufacturing – produced farm tools. At the time, the University of Toronto enrolled just 4,000 students, but was growing quickly. It had recently opened a faculty of education and new engineering and physics buildings, with the goal of preparing leaders for Canada’s burgeoning industrial economy.
Since then, both city and university have experienced phenomenal growth and change – fuelled and enriched by each other. As in so many global urban regions, we see here that a strong university helps build a strong city, and a strong city helps build a strong university. In today’s knowledge economy, more than ever, we need to leverage this relationship to mutual advantage.
There is already a great deal to build on. In 2011–12, U of T and its affiliated hospitals carried out $1.2 billion in funded research. About 20 per cent of this arose from collaborations with industrial, institutional and not-for-profit partners, including many local businesses and community-based organizations. As participants in these collaborations, our faculty and students are both the providers of new ideas and the beneficiaries.
U of T faculty and students have created companies, jobs and entirely new industries. This has helped the city to reinvent itself continually over time. Indeed, producing well-educated graduates represents U of T’s single biggest contribution to the Toronto region, to Ontario and to Canada.
As well, many faculty and students conduct research into specifically urban challenges. For example, the Daniels Faculty’s “gritlab” is testing the effectiveness of solar panels combined with green roofs. A PhD candidate in chemical engineering is developing an inexpensive monitor that could be deployed across the city to gather ultra-local air quality data. And then there’s Professor Ron Buliung’s great research on urban mobility, the built environment and human health.
Many of our students learn by working with neighbourhood partners. Both parties benefit from this. Our dentistry students served 78,000 patient-visits in their clinics last year. Half of these patients were children or seniors, and most were without insurance. At U of T Scarborough, our students work with community partners at the East Scarborough Storefront, serving the social needs of nearby residents. And at U of T Mississauga, the Centre for South Asian Civilizations is enhancing our interactions with local South Asian communities, and providing new global learning opportunities for our students.
As often as our students and faculty go into surrounding neighbourhoods, residents of these neighbourhoods come onto our campuses. Members of the community comprise 40 per cent of the enrolment for fitness, clubs and classes at Hart House. Every summer and March break, thousands of kids descend upon U of T for the Junior Blues and Camp U of T programs. And our Munk School of Global Affairs welcomes 33,000 visitors annually to its conferences and other public events.
I mention these examples because they are absolutely typical and, like most root systems, nearly invisible. They are also important sources of community stability. Town-and gown challenges inevitably arise, and we’ve had our share. But too often these are allowed to overshadow decades of wonderful partnerships that go largely unnoticed.
The continued success of city and university will depend on how well both are able to continue to attract world-class talent. Toronto’s cultural buzz and social harmony, its stable property markets, its public schools and libraries and other aspects of urban life make the city a magnet for brilliant people from around the world. And in turn, the talent attracted and retained by U of T creates opportunity for the entire region, the province and the country.
Our shared challenge, then, is to keep working together – and to find new ways of working together – to ensure our continued flourishing in the decades to come. The partnership between the Toronto region and its namesake university is crucial to the wellbeing of each. In fact, that partnership is so profound that it is often overlooked. But this is all the more reason that it requires our constant attention.
Adapted from a speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade in May 2014.
A U of T lab is working with actors, writers and directors on how they could harness AI and other emerging technologies to generate new ideas and – just maybe – reinvent theatre