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Ryerson researchers modelling a sustainable future that includes smart buildings and autonomous vehicles

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Ryerson University is a vibrant and dynamic institution located in downtown Toronto.SUPPLIED

As a vibrant and dynamic institution in downtown Toronto, Ryerson University’s research mandate is all about future-forward and cutting-edge innovation. The university’s focus on evidence-based research, technology-based solutions, and social responsibility and sustainability has attracted a swath of inventive academic minds who are proactively working on groundbreaking solutions to many of the real-world challenges that Canadians face as we think about the future.

Steven N. Liss, Ryerson’s vice-president of Research and Innovation, knows that the key to fostering innovative teams of academic researchers is to create a long-term commitment to supporting research with a keen eye on matters like environmental stewardship, city building and creating connections between colleagues both within and outside of Ryerson. The university has a strategic plan that looks forward toward the year 2030, prioritizing innovation and sustainability as the cornerstones of the university’s culture and academic programs. It makes for a campus where students and researchers are encouraged to follow lines of inquiry that will help them to envision their future in Canada, even in the face of immense challenges like climate change.

“Climate change and sustainability figure into so many disciplines here at Ryerson – those values are in our institutional DNA,” Dr. Liss says. “Our plans look forward with respect to how we envision the future in relation to disruption, work, sustainable cities, climate change, artificial intelligence, science and technology, and health and wellness.”

"Instead of waiting until the future arrives and reacting to it, we are proactively envisioning that future in a virtual digital twin.

Dr. Bilal Farooq
Civil Engineer and Canada Research Chair in Disruptive Transportation Technologies and Services, Ryerson University

Building for the future

Those values hold true in many of Ryerson’s various research projects that have received funding from the CFI. Researcher and architectural science professor Jenn McArthur recently received CFI funding for the Smart Campus Integration and Testing Lab (SCITLab), which will be physically hosted on the Ryerson campus and remotely accessible to colleagues from eight other institutions across Canada. The lab will be a standalone structure and the world’s first 100 per cent digitally enabled building, allowing Prof. McArthur and her colleagues to conduct experiments that will help inform the building of sustainable infrastructure in the future, while also shedding light on how to optimize older buildings’ existing systems to significantly reduce energy use.

From the outside, the SCITLab (which is scheduled to open by late 2022) will just look like a well-designed modern building, but every inch of its construction – from its mass timber walls and sensor-laden smart panels that can record how the building reacts to varying conditions, to multiple HVAC systems and cybersecurity equipment – is formulated to facilitate experimentation and gather data. The ground floor of the lab will be a mock-up of a smart home and the data centre tying it to the broader Ryerson Smart Campus project, with a smart office mock-up – both closed and open offices – and visualization suite on the second floor of the building.

“The lab is not so much a venue for research as it is the research. It really is a living lab,” Prof. McArthur says. “There are many things that might otherwise be considered building components, but in this lab they’re actually our research infrastructure. It’s like our equivalent of an electron microscope – every piece of it is an experimental apparatus.”

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Roof gardens at Ryerson University demonstrate the potential for producing food in urban spaces and contribute to the health and wellbeing of the community as well as the environment.SUPPLIED

Driving towards new frontiers

Civil engineer and Canada Research Chair in Disruptive Transportation Technologies and Services Bilal Farooq moves in the realm of one of the most talked-about technologies in our collective vision of the near future: autonomous vehicles. Dr. Farooq works in the CFI-funded Laboratory of Innovations in Transportation (LiTrans) at Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Innovation. His focus is on studying how autonomous vehicles will interact with pedestrians and other real-world factors once they’re unleashed on Canadian roadways.

“Instead of waiting until the future arrives and reacting to it, we are proactively envisioning that future in a virtual digital twin,” Dr. Farooq says. “Through this technology, we can imagine autonomous vehicles coexisting with pedestrians.”

Dr. Farooq and his team used this digital twin’s virtual reality technology to collect information on behaviour patterns from volunteers of all ages who crossed virtual streets in front of both autonomous and traditional vehicles, creating a data set that is then turned into detailed behaviour modelling. The intention is to use this research to design predictive software for autonomous vehicles and also potentially influence policy and safety regulations for autonomous and mixed traffic roadways. Dr. Farooq’s team also studies how autonomous vehicles can be efficiently routed to reduce emissions, congestion and ensure safety.

These are just two examples of how Ryerson is using funding from the CFI to help lead Canada and the rest of the world towards a smarter and more sustainable future. Dr. Liss is proud of the work being done by the university’s researchers and the role post-secondary institutions take in shaping what will eventually become our day-to-day reality.

“Bringing diverse perspectives and the intersections of disciplines and fields of study to the table is a critical part of our success in the future,” he says. “Our role is to challenge ourselves to think about curiosity-based work in a different light and to reimagine how we can be better contributors to the fabric of society.”

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