New public-private partnership aims to accelerate sustainability-focused innovation in Canada’s oil sands

A new partnership involving Canada’s largest oil sands producers is supporting research to “innovate the innovation process” – a move aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of the sector while improving long-term competitiveness.

Researchers at the Ivey Business School, University of Alberta and the University of Quebec at Montreal have launched a research collaboration led by Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). The partnership includes three COSIA member companies (Canadian Natural, Suncor and Cenovus), Alberta Innovates and Natural Resources Canada. COSIA has been cited as a world-class example of industry sharing and collaboration towards a shared ambition of improving environmental performance. This new project will work with the participating member companies, COSIA and the two government partners to seek important breakthroughs in innovation processes.

The research team, led by Professor Tima Bansal, Canada Research Chair in Business Sustainability at Western University and Director of the Network for Business Sustainability, will work closely with the companies to map their innovation processes and identify new opportunities to embed sustainability into innovation.

“Effective innovation goes beyond developing new technologies; it’s about people and processes,” said Prof. Bansal. “Our approach takes design thinking, and applies a systems lens. By understanding the system, we can find solutions that create financial and social value simultaneously. A systems approach invites broad input, which is often the wellspring of creativity.”

The project is a public-private partnership in which industry and government collaborate directly with the research team to understand how new technologies and processes are brought to market—and importantly, the key factors in determining which investments will succeed in creating long-term value. “This project offers a unique opportunity to study firsthand how industry and government innovate for sustainability,” says Assistant Professor Joel Gehman of the Alberta School of Business.

As equal partners in this collaboration, Alberta Innovates, COSIA and Natural Resources Canada are interested in using this process to understand how to accelerate the deployment of new technologies across sectors in Canada.

“Our Government continues to support projects that will help facilitate innovation and bring clean technologies to market,” said the Honourable Jim Carr, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources. “This project demonstrates that through collaboration and knowledge we will be one step closer to reaching our climate change goals, a clean economy and a healthier environment for Canadians.”

“Alberta Innovates is interested in understanding more about how new technologies and processes are brought to market,” says John Zhou, Alberta Innovates Vice President of Clean Energy. “Our focus is to accelerate the deployment of new technologies. This work will provide core insights to make that happen faster.”

This project is the first of several seeded by a $2.5 million research partnerships grant from the Government of Canada through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). This support will help companies across industries connect innovation with sustainability.

This human-centered design-thinking approach has been used by Chilean forestry firm Arauco. After an earthquake devastated one of their main factories, the company performed a significant pivot, committing to a new innovation approach that cut across their four business lines. The new approach required the participation of 400 employees over 54 weeks—but the pivot paid off, creating $1 billion in new value for the firm and society from thirteen different projects.

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