The SMART Training Platform is working with student researchers across Canada to build a more resilient food system. Using design thinking and digital technology, these young researchers aim to support the development of healthy cities and communities.
The Platform teaches students about a range of topics from community engagement to computational science, with a focus on the implementation of the scientific methods. Participating students then have the chance to create scalable solutions to real world challenges, including food insecurity and food waste.
It emerged from the collaboration of the cities of Guelph and Montreal, the Town of The Pas, and the Opaskwayak Cree Nation as they worked to provide experiential learning opportunities for college aged students. In 2021, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Healthy Research Initiative awarded the SMART Training Platform funds to develop their program. Their ongoing support comes from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
In the SMART Training Platform’s first year, they launched several 12-week courses, including “Design Thinking for SMART Healthy Cities.” The Platform also held their first SMART Healthy Cities annual conference and launched the SMART Training Platform Summer Institute, where participants immerse themselves in a week-long food centered project.
David Ma, Professor in the department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph and one of the leaders of the SMART Training Platform, tells Food Tank. “Over the course of our six-year program and working closely with community partners, we anticipate that trainees’ engagement in a range of projects spanning sustainability, waste, [and] food security…will contribute positively to ongoing efforts to improve the places where they live, work, and play.”
Ma attributes the program’s momentum to their close relationships with teams in Guelph, Montreal, the Town of The Pas, and the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN). “The team from Montreal is developing technologies to support decision making through big data and AI. The OCN is making great strides in the implementation of vertical farming technology to grow healthy foods to tackle the diabetes epidemic in Indigenous communities where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited,” he adds.
In the City of Guelph, the team is looking to build the first circular food economy in Canada. Working toward a 50x50x2025 goal, they aim to increase access to affordable nutritious food by 50 percent by viewing waste as a resource, create 50 new circular businesses and collaborations, and increase circular economic revenues by 50 percent — all before 2025. The Training Platform has utilized their partnerships with cities across Canada to further research opportunities for participants.
David Messer, Executive Director at the Smart Cities Office for the City of Guelph tells Food Tank, “We have 45 different private, industrial, commercial and institutional businesses to divert organic waste from landfill to compost.” He explains that these different actors have effectively created a citywide business to business composting cooperative that is being piloted in other parts of the country.
Scalability is a priority for the SMART Training Platform and its collaborators, Messer says. “Knowledge of food upcycling is low, around 30 percent,” he tells Food Tank, “but once people learn, they are quite interested and more willing to participate.” With some gaps in public awareness, finding what motivates citizens to take action is critical in the development of more sustainable cities.
The SMART Training Platform also has international aspirations to address other crucial aspects and challenges in building healthy and SMART cities. “This may include housing, transportation, energy and much more,” Ma tells Food Tank.
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Photo courtesy of David Messer, Our Food Future Initiative