May 6, 2014

Researchers ask: Why is oilsands industry slow to innovate?

Principle investigator Ian Gates and multifaceted team to explore technical and social factors behind slow adoption of change

This story is Part 2 of a five-part series highlighting the University of Calgary’s strategic research theme, Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow, and the recipients of the Vice-President (Research) Matching Funds to Advance Energy Research. The series will run May 5-9. To read the articles published to date, click here.

A team of 12 multifaculty University of Calgary researchers has been awarded funding for their energy research project, Reassembling the Oilsands: Industry, Technology, Society, Environment and Innovation. Their research will identify the technical and social factors that contribute to the slow rate of innovation in the oilsands industry and offer strategies to stimulate the pace of future innovation.

“The aim of our project is to take a multifaceted approach and address why the oilsands is slower at innovating, why technology that is over 20 years old is still being used, and how we can move forward from this in a collaborative effort with environmental groups, regulators, members of the community and corporations,” says Ian Gates, research team leader and professor at the Schulich School of Engineering. “The compounded issues range from regulatory policy to industrial practice, business practice to university practice. The entire system seems to be something that doesn’t allow for revolutionary change on a fast time scale.”

Project will explore social and technical factors of innovation 
Gates and his research team are using a holistic research approach, examining the social and technical dimensions of oilsands innovation. “Constraints on industry projects are sometimes unrelated to technology, but are instead social,” says Gates. “We want to involve every part of the system. You have industry, regulatory, and environmental groups. Then you have the social groups – aboriginal communities and homesteaders who are impacted because they live near oilsands operations. We need to have all of those folks in the picture to understand all of their needs.”

Determining what is meaningful to all stakeholders, not just the industry, is important, says Gates. “The solutions that come out may not be completely optimized to the company but optimized toward the entire system. It may not drive the highest profit, but they enable a project to move forward.”

Industry and community involvement will be critical to determining those processes. “I want people to share their experiences and their insight,” says Gates. “We will be soliciting folks from within the industry, within communities, government and people at home. We want to understand why they have the perceptions that they have of oilsands, and also how we can do something that will yield benefit. There’s no one answer that will fix it all.”

Gates says success will be determined through a clear understanding of what is holding back innovation in the oilsands and what will move the industry beyond that. “Tangible adoption would be to see regulatory bodies, the industry and communities actually adopt what we’re saying as the outcome of our research. We want to change the nature of the system and improve it.”

Multidisciplinary approach creates campus-wide engagement
The team is engaging researchers from multiple faculties to ensure their research will achieve the comprehensive relevance they’re striving for. “What’s really nice about our project is how it spans traditional energy researchers, plus management, arts, veterinary medicine, public health and public policy. It takes the Energy Innovation research theme across the university. It’ll be a first, to have all those faculties working together on an oilsands project,” says Gates. “We’ll have really different deliverables. We won’t just be designing a better oilsands process, we’ll be designing the process together with the social factors that motivate this process.”

Their multidisciplinary approach played a key role in being selected to receive the VPR funding. “We chose to fund the Oilsands Innovation Research Project because its multidisciplinary design reflects our desire to break down barriers between faculties and encourage cross-departmental research,” says Chris Clarkson, strategic research theme leader of Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow. “This approach is unique to the University of Calgary, and researchers are very motivated to participate in it.”

Future of energy research at the university
Gates believes this research will set the tone for future energy research at the university. “This project is a spearhead for where I believe energy research must go, which is to look at the entire ecosystem of it. I want the University of Calgary to be the leader in that,” he says. “It’s not just about production – it’s the use of it, it’s the risk we take in doing it, the cost, and it’s the policy that enables it.”

Gates envisions this project leading to the creation of an energy innovation centre that would provide unbiased, fact-checked information about the energy industry for all to access. “Environmental, industry, government – we’re not part of any of those worlds. We could have them participate in the research, but this centre wouldn’t have an agenda. There would be credibility here. I think Canada needs it, and the world needs it.” 

The Academic Plan and the Strategic Research Plan  are the roadmaps through which the University of Calgary will achieve its Eyes High strategic direction to become one of Canada’s top five research-intensive universities by 2016, grounded in innovative thinking and teaching, and fully integrated with the community of Calgary. In addition to the theme of Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow, the university is building strength in five other multidisciplinary strategic research themes: Brain and Mental Health; Human Dynamics in a Changing World; New Earth-Space Technologies; Engineering Solutions for Health; and Infections, Inflammation and Chronic Diseases in the Changing Environment.

To download the Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow Energy Research Strategy, please click here.