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Concordia University researchers bring art, design and engineering together to develop sustainable urban solutions and drive innovation

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Concordia University researchers bring art, design and engineering together to develop sustainable urban solutions and drive innovation.Michael Descharles/Unsplash

Alice Jarry’s work isn’t just art, science, education or environmental activism – it’s all of these and more.

Jarry is an assistant professor at Montreal’s Concordia University as well as an acclaimed artist who works with “residual” glass – what we used to consider waste – to find new ways of recycling and upcycling material that people would otherwise throw away.

“As an artist and designer, I’m interested in the question of material agency – the capacity of materials to react, to interfere with us and other beings, and to change over time,” Jarry says.

She notes that we as humans often see the materials in our built environment as passive substances onto which we impose our will and desires.

“This is one of the reasons that contribute to overconsumption, our current ‘throw-away’ culture, and many of the socio-environmental crises we face today,” she says. “I prefer to think of discarded and obsolete materials as active agents of change.”

As a faculty member in Concordia’s department of Design and Computation arts, Jarry teaches students about her goal, “to create objects that are sustainable both socially and environmentally,” as she explains.

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Artist and Concordia researcher Alice Jarry uses broken shards of recycled glass in works like Lighthouses (realized with Vincent Evrard).© Concordia

Jarry and others at Concordia are part of a growing community of experts and researchers from different fields – science, the arts, engineering, design – working to develop environmentally sustainable and climate change-focused solutions for smart, next-generation cities.

With concern about the climate growing so dramatically that even governments are labelling it an emergency, universities like Concordia are moving to the forefront of innovation and transdisciplinary research, working with the community and industry to explore new ideas and tackle societal challenges.

“From our perspective as a business, our objective is the same – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Grégory Pratte, public affairs manager for Tricentris, a materials recovery facility in Lachute, Quebec, that supplies materials to Jarry.

“We take all recyclable material like packaging, printed paper and containers we receive from the residential blue bins,” Pratte says. “All of the glass we receive is recycled, because recycling and reusing glass can reduce greenhouse emissions.”

For example, glass can be ground into powder that can be used to replace up to 20 per cent of the cement that goes into making concrete, Pratte notes.

“Not only do you reduce greenhouse gas emissions, you can also increase the life of the concrete between three and 10 times. It’s out-of-the-box thinking,” he says.

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“I prefer to think of discarded and obsolete materials as active agents of change,” says Alice Jarry (above).© Concordia

It’s that kind of out-of-the-box thinking that inspires Pratte and Tricentris to provide Jarry with glass for her striking responsive art installations and environments. Her large floor-mounted pieces, such as those from her Dust Agitator or Lighthouse series, encourage viewers to think not only about the angular light that permeates through the glass objects and shards, but also how they came from old, discarded glass, and the new potentials they produce.

“We have been working with her for about three years,” Pratte says. “Her work has ideas that can change the world.”

Jarry’s colleague, Mohamed Ouf, is another Concordia expert who is working on finding climate change solutions. Ouf is an assistant professor in Concordia’s department of building, civil and environmental engineering.

His work uses data generated in buildings to analyze “interactions” between the occupants and the physical space in which they live or work.

“By ‘interactions,’ I mean that we look at how they use the thermostats, lights, or blinds,” he explains. “First, we look at what triggers their actions, so we can see what kinds of designs to consider that might change their energy use.”

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Mohamed Ouf discussing how data from building systems can be used to model occupant behaviour and optimize building performance.Lisa Graves/© Concordia

From there, Ouf and fellow researchers look at how people use the control systems in their buildings, in order to design smarter controls that respond to the light and heat they need without wasting energy.

“There is a lot of waste that happens in buildings today that run on schedules that are different than how they’re being used,” he says. “With better data, we can actually predict how to operate the buildings more efficiently.”

He says a third area they are exploring is developing algorithms that can detect whether buildings are operating at maximum efficiency – advancements that could transform how infrastructure is designed and built.

Burak Gunay is an assistant professor at Carleton University’s department of civil and environmental engineering and one of Ouf’s collaborators. Gunay says that Concordia is a leader in this growing area of academia linking environmentalism and engineering.

“We collaborate a lot with them [at Concordia], and they’re clearly making a lot of significant contributions to the field,” he says.

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Engineer and Concordia researcher Mohamed Ouf uses data from buildings to analyze how people use the spaces in which they live or work.MARC BOURCIER/© CONCORDIA UNIVERSITY

Though it might seem like they come from disparate disciplines, Jarry and Ouf will be collaborating under the prestigious Canada Excellence Research Chairs (CERC) Program. This federal program awards select Canadian universities up to $10-million over seven years to help world-renowned researchers and their teams establish ambitious research programs.

At Concordia, the CERC program has been leveraged to bring together exceptional researchers including Jarry and Ouf to work on cutting-edge cities-related issues, from infrastructure systems to biodiversity. Jarry and Ouf will be bringing their individual perspectives in visual arts and engineering to the project, collaborating with researchers in other subject areas such as physics, philosophy and biology.

At the heart of these collaborations is a shared concern for Canada’s environmental future. Ouf says that he and his colleagues are aiming to find solutions that will help Canada achieve the principles set out in the Pact for Canada’s Green New Deal, a plan launched earlier this year by a non-partisan coalition of more than 60 organizations.

“A lot of this work ties into the bigger goal of reducing our carbon footprint [in Canada] by 50 per cent by 2030,” he says.

Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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