Privatizing innovation means privatizing information
Without having non-biased, independent research results from government and academic sources, we find that if we want to tell readers about new ways of building and new technologies, we must rely increasingly on the manufacturers of those products.
Editorial Comment from the May 2015 print issue, page 4.
During the interview with Harold Orr (p. 46), recalled that during the 1970s oil crisis he and other government and academic researchers sat around a table under the charge of the Saskatchewan government’s research arm. With oil prices surging, they were asked to design a house that used solar energy instead of oil. The solar technology ended up being too expensive to maintain in those early days and wasn’t successful. But the simpler idea that Orr championed of adding piles of insulation to the house structure and making sure the air barrier was completely sealed caught on. It has become a mainstay of energy-efficient building.
Today we don’t hear much about governments doing independent research or initiating new types of construction. Funding for innovation is funnelled largely to the private sector, whether micro-sized start-ups or huge corporations. So whereas this magazine used to be able to publish regular articles about the research being done in laboratories at Ottawa’s National Research Council’s Institute for Research in Construction, there has been little information emerging from there since it refocused to the private sector. Another federal agency, Sustainable Development Technology Canada, invests millions to private companies developing technologies. As for provincial examples: Ontario is funding private technological innovation in the water sector, and Alberta partners with oil sands companies to help them find more sustainable ways of extracting black gold. Universities do research, but they too are embedded with private sponsors. Everyone is pinning their hopes for a brighter future on the private sector.
Certainly corporations and entrepreneurs are more nimble and responsive to the market. As I write, the media is full of talk about Tesla’s latest invention, a compact 10 kWh solar battery for off-grid homes. Nuclear companies are coming up with their own small-scale solutions (see p. 38).
But from our point of view as a publication, the privatization of innovation makes it difficult to get unbiased, transparent information out to readers about new building technologies.
The private sector companies are guarded about the results of their research. So, for example, sustainable wall systems made of materials like hemp are being tested and monitored at the Alternative Village at the University of Manitoba (see p. 34). But there were no results to report, apparently due to concerns about releasing proprietary information.
And when companies do announce what seems to be an exciting new invention, for example the night cooling system by Conserval (p. 37), we are torn between wanting to tell our readers, while at the same time realizing we are coming close to crossing the perilous line between providing readers with independent editorial information and promoting manufacturer products.
Without having non-biased, independent research results from government and academic sources, we find that if we want to tell readers about new ways of building and new technologies, we must rely increasingly on the manufacturers of those products to provide the articles and information.