ARCHIVED - Evaluation of NRC Round III Cluster Initiatives -- Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure Research

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Executive Summary

Since 2001, the National Research Council Canada (NRC) has vigorously responded to the government's vision for community innovation and technology commercialization by making a series of investments in technology clusters across the country. NRC cluster initiatives have focused on building science and technology based innovation capacity in areas of local and regional strength to foster economic growth and improve quality of life. These investments in technology clusters address some of the key challenges of the November 2006 long-term national economic plan of the Government of Canada's "Advantage Canada: Building a Strong Economy for Canadians".

The primary reasons for conducting an evaluation of NRC Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure Research (NRC-CSIR) at this time were as follows:

  • to collect information on the progress of NRC-CSIR's cluster initiative to date, including lessons learned and best practices, to support NRC strategic program planning and on-going management of its horizontal technology cluster initiative strategy;
  • to provide an opportunity to communicate with initiative stakeholders in the sustainable infrastructure technology cluster community; and
  • to provide information relevant to decisions around funding renewal of NRC-CSIR's cluster initiative, which expires at the end of a five year funding cycle (2007-2008).

NRC Senior Executive Committee approved the Terms of Reference for this evaluation in November 2006.

NRC engaged Hickling Arthurs Low (HAL) Corporation to conduct this evaluation of NRC-CSIR's cluster initiative in Regina. The evaluation covered the period April 2003 to January 2007 inclusive. It addressed issues related to relevance; early outputs and impacts; design, delivery and cost-effectiveness; and lessons learned and novel practices.

The key methodologies used to address the evaluation issues included a review of documents; a review of administrative and performance data; and key informant interviews.

Sustainable Infrastructure Cluster Overview

The state of Canada's municipal infrastructure systems poses one of the major challenges Canada is facing at the beginning of the 21st century. Sustainable development, and the renewal and productivity of Canadian communities depend largely on the quality and efficiency of these systems. These systems consist of drinking water systems, stormwater and wastewater systems, culverts, causeways and roads, highways, airports, etc. It is the infrastructure of the country. Without these systems, water would be unsafe, journeys slow and the economy stagnant.

The construction sector, according to the National Research Council Institute for Research in Construction (NRC-IRC), places a major environmental footprint on the nation through its consumption of primary resources, consumption of energy in the constructed facilities and its waste disposal practices during construction, operation, and decommissioning. The sector has historically suffered from inconsistent profitability and has invested too little in capital, human resources and R&D.

The concept of a Sustainable Infrastructure Cluster evolved from discussions about a demonstration project in Regina between the National Research Council Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP) and the City of Regina in late 1999. In May 2003 the City of Regina, University of Regina (UoR), NRC, Saskatchewan Industry and Resources (SIR) and Western Economic Diversification (WD) launched a non-profit corporation, the Communities of Tomorrow: Partners for Sustainability Inc. (CT) at the Regina Research Park. The purpose of CT is to coordinate the "collective efforts of the CT partners, innovative firms and other stakeholders on building a cluster focused on sustainable infrastructure." Out of the total of $30 million pledged over five years by the five founding partners:

  • NRC's contribution of $10 million is dedicated solely to sustainable infrastructure and is under NRC-CSIR management.
  • University of Regina's contribution of $5 million is in-kind support.
  • City of Regina's contribution of $5 million is in-kind support.
  • WD's contribution of $5 million is largely dedicated to CT operations.
  • SIR's contribution of $5 million is the primary source of funds directly accessible for CT as an entity to contribute to projects

NRC Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure Research Cluster Initiative Overview

The National Research Council Institute for Research in Construction (NRC-IRC) has worked since early 2002 with regional collaborators (UoR, City of Regina, WD and SIR) to define its role in building the foundations of a technology cluster on sustainable infrastructure. Budget 2003 allocated $10M over five years for NRC to establish an NRC Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure Research (NRC-CSIR) in Regina.

NRC-IRC has five programs, one of which is the Urban Infrastructure (UI) Program. NRC-CSIR is one of four sub-programs of the UI Program. NRC-CSIR is the only sub-program of the UI Program in Regina. The other three sub-programs are centred in Ottawa, Ontario.

NRC-CSIR's intent is to help to serve as the catalyst for a technology cluster in Regina making it a model community in sustainable development and infrastructure renewal. It also intends to help develop a technology base that will give Saskatchewan a competitive advantage in sustainable infrastructure technologies. At the national level, this effort intends to help communities across Canada achieve the goal of sustainability in urban development (from planning to construction) and municipal infrastructure asset management (including operation, maintenance, rehabilitation through to renewal or decommissioning). NRC-CSIR's current focus is on the development and management of sustainable water and wastewater infrastructure.

General Conclusions

NRC's overarching rationale for launching technology cluster initiatives is to support the economic prosperity of communities. NRC-CSIR brings to the sustainable infrastructure technology cluster more than high quality people (HQP) and state-of-the art research facilities. NRC-CSIR also brings to the initiative, experience in technology cluster development in other regions, provides access to a network of expertise in Canada and the world, and serves as a catalyst for bringing research collaborators together.

Although NRC-IRC had developed and was following its five-year plan, a series of events beyond NRC-CSIR's control led to delays in the establishment of the Centre. While recognizing that these events were beyond NRC's control, there are, however, a number of measures that NRC generally and NRC-IRC/NRC-CSIR may wish to consider with respect to using technology cluster initiatives to support the economic prosperity of communities. The following recommendations are based on the findings and general conclusions discussed below.

Summary of Findings and Recommendations – Relevance

Prior to the establishment of NRC-CSIR, the parent institute, NRC Institute for Research in Construction (NRC-IRC) was involved in several consultation exercises to identify the priorities and needs of other collaborators in the Sustainable Infrastructure Cluster. Through these consultations: i) the City of Regina identified the development and management of sustainable water and wastewater infrastructure as its top priority; ii) surveys of business and industry and of universities and research organizations found that many are engaged in research in water, water resources, waste water, watershed management and modeling; iii) the Government of Saskatchewan introduced its Safe Drinking Water Strategy in April 2002 following the tragedy in Walkerton, Ontario and in response to recommendations from the North Battleford Commission of Inquiry; and, iv) the civil infrastructure systems technology road map identified new technologies and improved management practices as key to ensuring the sustained prosperity of Canadian communities. The evaluation found that NRC Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure Research is a relevant initiative that aligns with the socio-economic needs of Regina and the province of Saskatchewan.

Recommendation 1: we recommend that NRC-IRC move forward to secure funding to support the National Research Council Centre for Sustainable Infrastructure Research (NRC-CSIR) beyond March 31, 2008.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: An NRC cluster initiative business plan for the 5 years beyond March 31, 2008 will be presented to NRC senior management for consideration. NRC-IRC will assist NRC Strategy and Development Branch as needed concerning the funding renewal process with Central Agencies. It is understood from NRC Strategy and Development Branch that NRC will require annual ongoing funds to operate the programs and facilities associated with all of its technology cluster initiatives after FY2009-2010 and NRC will be seeking new resources for this purpose.

The City of Regina and the University of Regina have indefinite mandates, while NRC-CSIR, WD and SIR (Government of Saskatchewan) have finite mandates, e.g., NRC-CSIR funding ends in 2008. There is a concern by some stakeholders that NRC-CSIR could pull out of the initiative before the Sustainable Infrastructure Cluster is fully established. In cases where a 'greenfield' initiative is being established such as NRC-CSIR, having a mandate longer than five years is more critical. With a longer-term mandate, it is possible to include decision points that would allow NRC to cancel or modify the approach if events are not unfolding as planned.

Recommendation 2: while recognizing the realities of government operations and requirements, we recommend that NRC explore ways to provide a longer-term mandate for technology clusters generally, and particularly for 'greenfield' operations such as the NRC-CSIR cluster initiative in Regina.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: NRC has cluster initiatives in 11 communities across Canada, all at different stages of cluster life cycle development. NRC recently completed a successful request to the Government of Canada for renewed funding to support six of its 11 clusters. In 2008, NRC will be approaching the GoC to request renewed investments in its two remaining greenfied cluster initiatives and will begin to lay the groundwork to position the longer-term mandate for technology clusters generally, as one of NRC's horizontal programs specifically (horizontal RMAF under development as well as renewed Technology Cluster Strategy and Communications plan), as part of NRC's A-Base.

NRC-TCS is working with Strategy and Development Branch concerning the funding renewal process with Central Agencies. It is understood from NRC Strategy and Development Branch that NRC will require annual ongoing funds to operate the programs and facilities associated with all of its technology cluster initiatives after FY2009-2010, and NRC will be seeking new resources for this purpose.

Summary of Findings and Recommendations – Early Outputs and Impacts

Access to Research Facilities: Access to specialized research facilities has increased as a result of NRC-CSIR technology cluster initiative funding; there is a high level of cooperation between researchers in the cluster; and there are initial indications that these facilities and the research being carried out will be influential in attracting other R&D investments to the region.

Attraction and Development of Highly Qualified Personnel: The time required to attract the appropriate HQP in specialized fields, particularly in the establishment of a 'greenfield' initiative such as NRC-CSIR, is a long process. NRC-CSIR only reached its full complement of HQP in 2006/07, four years after the start of the technology cluster initiative. Now that it is fully staffed, NRC-CSIR's presence is contributing to the development of HQP in the region. However, NRC-CSIR's Manager Footnote1 and Research Officers (ROs) unlike their peers in the parent institute (NRC-IRC) have the added responsibility of fostering the development of the Sustainable Infrastructure Cluster which is not taken into account in their performance assessments.

Level of Research Activity: The investment in NRC-CSIR has led to an increase in fundamental scientific knowledge in the area of sustainable infrastructure. Although NRC-CSIR was not fully staffed until year 4 of the initiative (2006-07), Centre staff have published five papers in refereed journals, 18 papers in refereed conference proceedings, published 22 technical reports and other publications. As of March 2007, the Centre was involved in fourteen research projects. It is perceived by interviewees that some of the research would not have taken place without the Centre. Although it is early days for the Centre, some of the research is already providing benefits to the City of Regina.

Access to NRC Technology and Industry Support Resources: NRC-IRAP's activities are starting to contribute to the extension of NRC-CSIR R&D capabilities to firms, in spite of the absence of a construction/environmental technologies ITA over the last two years. NRC-IRC is the only institute at NRC with its own information/library services. The extent and nature of the use of NRC-IRC's information/library services is associated with the number of NRC-CSIR staff and the information needs of their work at various phases, such as quick and extended literature searches.

Cluster Networking and Industry Development: NRC-CSIR has undertaken numerous networking activities, but in the initial couple of years these efforts to reach out and involve industry were compromised by CT's initial broad focus. As a result, many commend NRC-CSIR for staying focused on science driven research and commercially driven development. NRC-CSIR's networking efforts are paying off, with strong industry attendance at Centre sponsored events. The process of establishing the Sustainable Infrastructure Cluster particularly in terms of identifying the strengths/contributions and role that each collaborator could play in the development of the cluster takes time, going through this process is necessary, and according to interviewees it is a process that could not be shortened. Interviewees also indicated NRC-CSIR has facilitated other collaborations, such as between the city and the university that would not have taken place in the absence of the Centre and its networking efforts.

Other Impacts: According to interviewees outside NRC, NRC-CSIR's presence brings prestige to Regina, and acts as a catalyst in the formation of the cluster. There were no plans for an Industry Partnership Facility (IPF), nor do they have any.

Recommendation 3: we recommend that NRC-CSIR develop and implement with NRC-IRAP an integrated plan / service delivery model for reaching out to appropriate firms, particularly in Regina but also Saskatoon and other regions in Saskatchewan, now that the two NRC industry contact positions in the cluster initiative in Regina (at NRC-CSIR and NRC-IRAP) are staffed. The intent behind an integrated plan / service delivery model is to ensure effective coordination of efforts. For example, it is important that both the NRC-CSIR Industry Liaison Officer and the NRC-IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor are involved in any outreach events and networking activities with industry. In this regard, NRC (through NRC-CSIR and NRC-IRAP) should be involved in SpringBoard West Innovations Inc. (formerly the Technology Innovation Centre) that is being planned for the Regina Research Park by UoR, SIR and WD.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: The 5-year Business Plan will present an integrated plan for reaching out to firms in Regina, Saskatoon and throughout Saskatchewan. NRC-CSIR and NRC-IRAP will pursue coordination of efforts and, subject to approval of the Business Plan, deliver on outreach activities. The business plan will contain intended results and performance indicators in relation to outreach activities. Achievements will be reviewed annually.

Concerning the minor suggestion, the NRC-CSIR Industry Liaison function in the cluster is provided on a part-time basis by a highly qualified person on contract, and both provision of an NRC email address to the individual and assessing the need for devoted NRC-CSIR staff member in this function will be addressed.

Summary of Findings and Recommendations – Design, Delivery and Cost-Effectiveness

Initiative Implementation: Although the results outlined in the Centre's five-year plan are being achieved, they are occurring approximately one to two years later than planned. The following series of events, both internal and external to NRC-CSIR, caused delays in implementation:

  1. Internal events included: i) one of the first NRC-CSIR ROs left in year one of the initiative due to medical reasons, ii) the NRC-IRC-UI Director responsible for the Centre retired which meant that over the last two years there have been several Acting Directors (to date the position has not been filled), iii) the joint NRC-IRAP ITA/NRC-CSIR Business and Community Relations Officer retired in May 2005, which meant that the Centre's Manager had to undertake, in addition to his normal duties, industry liaison activities over the June 2005 to October 2006 period, iv) the time required to fully staff the Centre took longer than expected, v) delays in staffing caused delays in equipping the Centre; and,
  2. External events included: vi) several key players in the Sustainable Infrastructure Cluster retired or left in the early years of establishing Communities of Tomorrow (CT) and NRC-CSIR, and vii) CT had a false start, with a very broad initial view of sustainable community development that included social and cultural objectives isolated from municipal infrastructure technology and economic development. CT's false start caused confusion over the purpose and roles of CT and NRC-CSIR, particularly amongst industry. This required efforts by the CT Board of Directors to being CT back into focus but also consultations/networking activities by NRC-CSIR staff to guide specific CT partners, which diverted NRC-CSIR energies away from other activities such as industry liaison.

The evaluation found that a series of events beyond NRC-CSIR's control caused delays in implementation but is now on track.

Effectiveness of Management and Administrative Practices: The implementation of NRC-CSIR's technology cluster initiative in Regina has benefited from effective management and administrative practices, which included the use of additional resources from the parent institute (NRC-IRC) to fill in until the Centre could be fully staffed. However, NRC-CSIR's Manager and ROs are expected to engage in leading edge research, but unlike their peers in the parent institute (NRC-IRC) they are also expected to engage in networking and liaison activities to foster the development of the Sustainable Infrastructure Cluster. These time intensive networking and liaison activities are not included as criteria in their performance assessments. This is a challenge that is perhaps common to other NRC technology cluster initiatives.

Alternatives: No other alternatives to establishing a technology cluster in Canada were mentioned. Government support is key, and NRC-IRC particularly suited to facilitating the establishment of a Sustainable Infrastructure Cluster in Regina.

Recommendation 4: we recommend that the NRC Technology Cluster Secretariat (TCS) compile a compendium of lessons learned from all of the NRC technology cluster initiatives and disseminate this information to staff and stakeholders involved in the NRC technology clusters. In particular, attention should be given to the rationale for establishing technology clusters and the role that supporting organizations can play in facilitating the commercialization of research by stimulating firms, in order to support the economic prosperity of the community.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: TCS has established a pan-NRC Cluster Initiative Network of internal cluster practitioners that will meet two to three times per year to discuss common projects, goals, challenges, best practices and lessons learned. Two meetings have been held this fiscal year.

NRC is also hosting a conference on technology clustering in Toronto in September 2007. NRC Connections 2007: The Technology Cluster Advantage in Canada will demonstrate the value of technology clustering among key audiences and will promote collaborative stakeholder action.

NRC has developed a number of other vehicles to disseminate knowledge and engage stakeholders in technology clustering efforts, including, the annual cluster report/magazine, features in NRC's external quarterly newsletter (NewsLink), a revamped online presence (external and Intranet), regional cluster fact sheets etc.

TCS will work in conjunction with other internal stakeholder groups (PPM, CPS, other) to develop a compendium of lessons learned over 10 years of cluster building, consisting of lessons learned, successes, challenges, economic impacts, way forward. Sources will include evaluations, interviews, cluster measurement studies, DG feedback, etc.

Recommendation 5: we recommend that the NRC Technology Cluster Secretariat work with the NRC Human Resources Branch to develop performance criteria that reflect the duties and responsibilities of cluster-based staff, such as the NRC-CSIR. Currently, cluster-based staff is assessed according to the same criteria as parent-institute based staff, but cluster-based staff such as those at NRC-CSIR are also expected to facilitate the development of the technology cluster in their community, which includes time intensive networking and liaison activities.

Management Response and Proposed Actions: NRC-TCS to advise HR in their drafting of potential performance criteria to acknowledge and better reflect the duties and responsibilities of cluster-based staff as well as other staff that play a significant role in technology cluster initiatives as part of their PPR's.

Lessons Learned and Novel Practices

The final area examined by the evaluation was lessons learned and novel practices. The findings highlight key lessons learned that could be applied or adopted by other initiatives launched by NRC in support of technology clustering.

  • Identify and prioritize needs, and at least initially, develop a critical mass and focus on one area. NRC-IRC was involved in several consultation exercises to identify the priorities and needs of other collaborators in the cluster initiative, e.g., through town hall meetings in Regina in 2002, at the NRC forum in 2003, and TRM forums. In light of Saskatchewan's Safe Drinking Water Strategy and the development and management of sustainable water and wastewater infrastructure identified by the City of Regina as their top priority, NRC-CSIR's initial focus is on the development and management of sustainable water and wastewater infrastructure. Staffing and equipping the Centre has been carried out in support of this initial focus. Given the resources, the decision to focus the Centre initially on water was sound.
  • Establishing a technology cluster in a small city like Regina will have a greater impact. More specifically, the relative impact of adding roughly a dozen HQP on the critical mass of HQP in a specific area such as sustainable infrastructure and environmental technologies is greater in a small city than in a major urban centre such as Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. The presence of NRC-CSIR is having a significant beneficial impact particularly on research organizations such as the University of Regina, the end-users of the research such as the City of Regina, and the Centre's presence is beginning to have the same beneficial impact on the main drivers of the cluster, i.e., local industry.
  • Stakeholders and staff, particularly during the process of recruiting new people, need to know that NRC is committed to the technology cluster initiative for the long term. Many interviewees outside NRC noted that the initial years are critical to the technology cluster initiative, and if funding was not renewed after five years the long-term viability of the cluster is jeopardized. Other respondents suggested that it would be easier to attract and recruit new people if long-term funding was assured from the start.
  • Provide opportunities for new cluster-based recruits to learn from the experience not only of their peers in the parent institute but also peers in other NRC technology clusters. Staff at NRC technology clusters such as NRC-CSIR have dual roles, supporting and engaging in leading edge research as well as fostering the development of the technology cluster.
  • Engaging one person to serve a dual role as the NRC-IRAP Industrial Technology Advisor and NRC-CSIR Business and Community Relations Officer was very effective in reaching out to industry in the early, start-up days. NRC-CSIR seconded the NRC-IRAP ITA to act half time as the Centre's business and community relations officer and half time as the ITA. Engaging the same person to provide both roles proved to be very effective in reaching out to potential industry collaborators in the initial years of the initiative. Unfortunately, there has been a two-year gap since the individual retired and when NRC-CSIR could engage an industry liaison officer and NRC-IRAP could engage an ITA focused on construction and environmental technologies. As well, this gap combined with the confusion surrounding CT's initial focus contributed to low industry involvement in research projects to date. This is expected to change with industry now on the CT Board and greater, or renewed, engagement by industry in the Sustainable Infrastructure Cluster.

Footnotes

Footnote 1

Also referred to as the Research Council Officer (RCO).

Return to footnote 1 referrer

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