Q & A with Advisory Panel Member Carl Zehr

Research Matters Advisory Panel member Carl Zehr is the Mayor of the City of Kitchener, Ontario.

What does university research contribute to the city infrastructure?

I think municipalities are some of the best places to put university research into practice. Research informs our thinking of how we plan for roads, public transit and other innovations within our infrastructure. The Water Institute at the University of Waterloo, for instance, has had a significant impact on our city planning.  We put university research into practice to reduce greenhouse gases and carbon emissions. Research helps create infrastructure that lasts longer, is more environmentally friendly and uses less energy.

A lot of research at universities – and from the private sector – can immediately be put into practice by municipal governments. We can be a showcase of that innovation.

And what about a city’s social infrastructure?

We have a very good working relationship with Wilfrid Laurier’s school of social work, which is right behind our City Hall. They’re using our community, our downtown as a lab. Through that process, through their research, we’ve learned new ways of doing public engagement. We’ve expanded into social media, and changed the way we hold public meetings. In former years, we might have had our technical staff go out to a community saying, “Here’s a project. This is what we want to do and how we want to do it. We want to tell you about it.”

Now we ask for opinions and listen to those opinions. It can be about drilling a well, putting a new roadway in, or building a community centre. We know better now how to get to the heart of what a community wants.

How has university research touched your personal life?

I’m an accountant by background. I remember many years ago, when we first introduced “computers,”  which were at the time glorified posting machines. It came from somewhere, possibly a lab at an institution and it changed how we manipulated data.

Today, I have sitting right in front of me, a BlackBerry. Without a doubt that has come through research and development, and it changes how I operate.

How would you describe the university research scene in this province?

I’m very aware of the breadth and the depth of research across all universities in Ontario. I was on the board of the [now defunct] Toronto Region Research Alliance. That broadened my mind about the kinds of things that are happening across this province. The breadth of research is very impressive.

What do you think Ontario will look like in 2030?

I’m going to use a word that is overused, but I’m going to use it anyway. “Sophisticated.” I don’t mean in a hoity-toity sense. I mean we will have a clearer focus of where we need to be. The devices that we carry that will be in our offices and homes will allow us to be more interactive with institutions governments and individuals. But I do give this a little negative note – I do fear for literacy: I wonder if we will we communicate in codes and short forms. Will we have the kind of literature I am familiar with? I hope there will still be people who want to read and create books and stories, but I think a lot of the practical things will be much more interactive.

Interactivity will help us in municipal government – and all orders of government – In terms of engagement. We’re not there yet. Will it fundamentally change our understanding of democracy? Quite possibly.