During a report to Senate last Wednesday, McGill University revealed the details of its plan to develop the Quartier d’Innovation (QI), a research and entrepreneurship-driven innovation hub.
The QI is intended to be a dynamic neighbourhood driven by research and innovation coming from the university, NGOs, emerging start-ups, and existing corporations. The proposed centre will be much like the MaRS research hub in Toronto and Barcelona 22 in Spain.
In her talk, McGill’s Vice-Principal of Research and International Relations Rose Goldstein discussed the potential economic benefits a research centre could have for the city of Montreal, as well as for the province and Canada. Goldstein pointed to Spain as an example, noting that while its economy has been suffering in recent years, Barcelona has been best prepared to weather the downturn among Spanish cities. She went on to suggest that the Barcelona 22 hub may have contributed to some of the city’s growth.
The QI also represents a partnership between École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS), a Montreal university that’s part of the University of Quebec system specializing in engineering and technology, and McGill.
The hub, which will begin with one building owned by McGill and another owned by ÉTS, is hoping to eventually span the entire neighbourhood south-west of downtown Montreal as start-ups, corporations, and private research labs set up offices there to meet the growing demand for jobs in emerging fields like green technology.
After the presentation, a number of senators voiced their apprehensions about the source of funding for the project, especially since McGill has been operating with a fiscal deficit in recent years. One senator pointed to the anticipatory overbuilding in Chicago a decade ago as an example, and cautioned against overinvestment in the case where other areas of the economy do not catch up.
In her response, Goldstein said that she “cannot stress enough the [government’s] feeling that this is something that Canada lacks,” and reiterated that it has the support of all three levels of government. She added that McGill is being careful in the allocation of its own investments.
Law Senator Clarke called for careful consideration to be made so that students are not “treated as commodities” with marketable skills and that the QI must specifically create opportunities for students.
Arts Senator Matt Crawford expressed concern with where current low-income residents of the neighbourhood, known as Griffintown, would be forced to go as the area is developed. He called for careful investigation into the displacement of these individuals.
“There is a growing trend in Montreal towards gentrification, and it certainly isn’t a recent phenomenon,” Crawford wrote in an email to the Tribune. “Places of cultural or historical significance, along with low-income residences, are often the first to be placed on the chopping block.”
SSMU president Maggie Knight questioned whether some of the industry partners listed in the report as potential partners, like Monsanto, line up with the vision of the project, specifically in the area of corporate social responsibility.
“The primary concerns discussed by SSMU’s Senate Caucus were the lack of student involvement in the creation of the QI project to date, the language of the project overview which does seem to commodify students, and a lack of parameters around whether or not there were any limitations on types of private sector involvement,” Knight wrote in an email to the Tribune. “There didn’t appear to be any discussion of corporate social responsibility or of how corporate sector organizations would be selected or filtered in terms of alignment with the vision of the QI project.”
“That being said, we also agreed that many students would welcome the opportunities QI could provide,” she added.
Crawford also noted the need to consider the ethics of the project.
“I would like a more measured and prudential approach from the administration in its partnership with political and corporate players. This is an expensive project with numerous ethical ramifications,” Crawford wrote. “It’s important that we are both a) seriously committed to considering all the dimensions of the project, particularly its ethical structure; [and] b) are prepared to leave it on the table if it doesn’t meet the standards the McGill community sets for itself.”
When asked whether student consultation on the project is currently taking place by PGSS Senator Roland Nassim, Phil Barker, chair of the QI’s internal planning process, replied that while no student input has been considered thus far, there would be consultation as they enter the next phase of development.