Calling all inventors May 15, 2013Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV404 , add a comment
A few weeks ago, a Canadian Press article surfaced explaining that the Canadian federal government wanted to “tap the skills of obscure basement inventors and turn their tinkering into innovative consumer products.” After all,
History is full of consumer innovations that went from obscurity to millions of dollars of sales in short order.
Among them, the dishwasher, invented in 1886 by a wealthy matron in Illinois who wanted to avoid the chipped dishware that was the inevitable result when her servants did the washing. Josephine Cochrane made extra dishwashers for friends, and eventually created a company that became part of Whirlpool Corp.
The article also mentions the skateboard as another “home-grown” product, but fails to note a single Canadian basement invention. Perhaps Industry Canada needs to put the historical horse before the cart to inspire people with a few, you know, Canadian examples. Or maybe we just need something more galvanizing from the government than “framework laws, expenditure programs and regulatory-standards systems” to encourage people. Like a war!
When I read the article I couldn’t help but think of a couple of conference talks about the foibles of such encouragement that I attended a few years ago at the 2011 Canadian Science and Technology Historical Association (CSTHA) biennial meeting. The first, by Galen Perras, explored the lengths that one Hamiltonian travel agent and veteran went to during the Second World War to convince the Canadian military that infantry should use lacrosse sticks to lob grenades at their foes. Using personal connections and demonstrations before the media, he was able to promote his idea quite a ways up the curious as well as skeptical chain of command before it was ruled impractical. I’ll admit, all my 21st century mind can visualize is a shaky YouTube video of a bunch of teenagers with lacrosse sticks lobbing pop-bottle bombs or firecrackers across a high-school football field then taking the idea to Dragon’s Den.
The second talk, by Dorotea Gucciardo, covered this same territory more broadly of basement or backyard inventors doing their duty during the Second World War, submitting their best and brightest ideas to Ottawa. Eventually, an office known as the War Inventions Board was created to manage the influx of inspiration. Given the examples that Gucciardo mentioned — “from freezing clouds and mounting guns on them to hanging machine gunners on trapeze” — let no one claim Canadians are uncreative. But as she and Perras confirmed, most submissions were rejected and dismissed by the government and the military. Which isn’t to say that some crazy ideas weren’t tested quite thoroughly: who remembers the contemporary Project Habakkuk, the presumably unsinkable pykrete (ice and sawdust) aircraft carrier planned for the North Atlantic to take on U-Boats?
In short, what struck me the most about the CP story, combined with my recollections of those two CSHTA talks, was that this sort of backyard invention, like virtually every kind of technological change, is bound to be unpredictable, of varied (and dubious) quality, and hard to channel. In any case, I do encourage Industry Canada to post the results (successful or not) on YouTube. To benefit, you know, future historians.
Technology vs Science vs the NRC May 8, 2013Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV404 , comments closed
One question that comes up in STV 100 is if technology is applied science. Many undergraduates are quite happy with this understanding and see no need to question it. After all, most STV students are engineers, which means they are working towards a Bachelor of Applied Science, so it’s a no-brainer. The role of science is the creator of new knowledge which engineers can then apply.
It’s not that simple, I usually tell them. Where does it leave the technological tinkerers working in the scientific darkness, using rule of thumb and experience to guide them to a novel solution that “works”, without any understanding or need for scientific principles or methods? Or “big” science of today–think of the Large Hadron Collider or space telescopes, looking at small things and big things–that is only possible through the mediation of technology: without the very expensive instruments, there is no science. The role of science and technology toward the other can be “fuzzy”, to use a technical term. Most commentators these days accept that both can push the other forward.
But today I also want to talk about the social and cultural rank of technology and science. In other words, let what do people think of the relationship or role between them. Which is subordinate and which is more important, socially and culturally? Generally, science and scientists and scientific activity has ranked higher than the technical and useful arts from the Ancients well into to the 20th century, at least in the western tradition. This may help explain the persistence of the idea of “technology is applied science”, even when presented with counter-evidence. People have believed science to be a higher activity for so long that it’s hard to give up.
Against these observations I note yesterday’s announcement that the National Research Council, Canada’s foremost scientific research body, is changing. As explained by council president John McDougall:
“We have shifted the primary focus of our work at NRC from the traditional emphasis of basic research and discovery science in favour of a more targeted approach to research and development,” McDougall
“Impact is the essence of innovation. A new idea or discovery may in fact be interesting, but it doesn’t qualify as innovation until it’s been developed into something that has commercial or societal value.
How can this be anything other than a reversal of ranking? That technology will now be lifted above science, and science must now demonstrate impact or application to be valuable? I suspect this will remain a controversial decision for many years. Many different people jumped up yesterday to point out that pure science can lead unexpectedly to economic value. That misses the point I think, because everybody knows that happens, even if they’d like it to be more predictable or frequent. The real point was that pure science used to be appreciated (and get funded) simply for its own ends, which nobody mentioned. Now, that type of research is entirely up to universities.
Curiously, I looked around at the high-profile scientific research here at UW. Consider the new Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum Nano Centre housing the Institute for Quantum Computing and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology, or the 14-year-old Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. Of late, the local paper has been profiling the new building, its occupants and the general goals of these institutes. The articles rarely distinguish between technology or science, and each insists that quantum physics is a valuable investment because of the positive social, economic or environmental impacts, not the basic scientific insights.
Quantum physics can offer solutions to everything from environmental to economic problems, Turok [director of the Perimeter Institute] said. Because quantum devices and quantum computers could do
infinitely more calculations than classical processors, the field should be a “great source of optimism and hope.” (source)
Raymond Laflamme, director of the Institute for Quantum Computing, says this “totally wacko” technology has the potential to create economic activity that would dramatically reshape our region. (source)
Not so long ago, the theories these experiments are built upon were only taken seriously by unconventional physicists dismissed as “hippies.” But a few key breakthroughs in the 1980s and 1990s finally unlocked the keys to the technologies contained within. (source)
Even the university website for the new building emphasizes social impact over pure discovery:
Research at the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre will lead to transformative technologies, such as ultra-powerful quantum computers, innovative quantum devices and nanotechnologies with applications that will benefit society in countless ways.
In short, the technological innovations hidden in the science matter more than the insights themselves (which are strange, non-intuitive and otherwise difficult to understand anyways). I’m not saying that Turok, Laflamme or any of the scientists working around here believe this, or that these even represent useful samples of the science that happens beyond my office door. And perhaps this is not the best university in Canada for the pure vs applied litmus test: UW was founded on the idea of applied knowledge (think co-op).
Nonetheless, I really don’t doubt the trend, nor that this is a sudden or politically motivated reversal in the fortunes of science and technology. It has probably been underway for decades and will probably reflect the views of society better, regardless of the political sideshow of whether or not a particular government is pursuing an “anti-intellectual” or “anti-science” mission or not. Indeed, according to Paul Forman, we entered this new era in the early 1980s and many thinkers, philosophers, historians and commentators are still catching up. As a result, many people who ought to know better get science and technology mixed up, and fail to distinguish between them in an effort to capture the “impact” of new research:
“Those most influential in science not only emphasize the importance of new technology for scientific advance–and minimize the importance of new concepts–but also deny the existence of any clear boundary or distinction between science and technology.” (Forman, 2007)
Which is exactly what we see in the newspapers as well. I suppose as a historical exercise, it would be interesting to track the social and cultural interaction with universities and their research institutes across Canada to confirm Forman’s thesis regarding the rank of science vs technology. Perhaps UW has merely been been ahead of the game. Any grad students out there looking for a project?
Did we win? Did we invent that? Does it matter? August 15, 2012Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV404, Uncategorized , comments closed
So, the 2012 London Olympics are over. How did we do? Can’t we just count medals? Maybe.
Canadian athletes earned 1 gold, 5 silver and 12 bronze, for 18 medals. According to this common tally, Canada placed 36th, right behind Norway. Wait, hang on, that’s not what I saw here, and on TV, where I learned that Canada placed 13th. What’s going on?
It turns out that the common way of ranking is by the number of golds, followed by silvers, then bronzes. That puts Canada about halfway down the list of countries that earned a medal, nowhere near the top and nowhere near as exciting for the folks at home. So, some news outlets rearranged rankings according to the total number of medals, elevating the Canadian position. CTV, Globe and Mail, CBC, I’m looking at you. Others, like the National Post, The Toronto Star, and the local paper, The Record, used the other system. Also, lets not forget a third way to count things up: 3 points for gold, 2 for silver, 1 for bronze. That puts Canada in 19th, but not many people use that system.
This ranking problem is hardly a new issue. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Chinese athletes earned more gold (51) than any other country, and apparently some American news outlets switched ranking systems to total medals (100 for China, 110 for the US), having lost the gold medal tally (only 36 that year). This year, no problems: the US won on both tallies (46 golds, 104 total). At the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, Canada had the highest number of gold medals, so we won, except the United States actually had more medals total, so they also won. There’s a nice little blog entry over at the CBC hitting on some of these issues.
My favorite bit of ranking trivia for this year has to do with the rivalry between Australia and New Zealand. The Kiwis were doing better in London than the Aussies, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Australia. And so, from New Zealand’s Stuff.co.nz:
Many Australians are glumly contemplating their meagre – for them – haul of one gold, nine silver and four bronze.
So deep is the despair that official free-to-air Australian Olympic broadcaster Channel 9 avoided showing New Zealand’s charge up the medal table, which took this country [New Zealand] to tenth at one stage before settling at 12th by the end of the day.
Its medal table had only the nine top countries, then a gap down to Australia. And some pundits have suggested pooling the wins for Team Oceania, to save Aussie red faces.
So, how does this all this connect to technology? The Olympic nationalism reminds me quite strongly of technological nationalism, especially the kind that celebrates citizens as inventors of revolutionary technologies and tabulates lists of national technologies. In both cases, the effort can get out of hand as nations “adjust” the facts to suit their national narrative.
So, for example, one of the early stories during the Olympics was of Missy Franklin, a swimmer for the American team who won five medals (four gold). Though she was born in the United States and has lived there her whole life, it was hard to avoid hearing up here in Canada that her parents were Canadian and she does hold dual-citizenship, and so by progenitor proxy she was swept up in the Canadian narrative even if we can’t count her medals. Technologically, in Canada, we think of Alexander Graham Bell–the inventor of the telephone–as Canadian, so the telephone is Canadian. But the Americans think it’s American, and the Scottish think it’s Scottish. Bell was born in Scotland, emigrated to Canada, and carried out the actual inventing in America. As Bell himself delicately explained, the idea was conceived in Brantford but born in Boston. All of which sets aside who actually invented the telephone. Was it Bell, or the American Elisha Gray, or the Italian Antonio Meucci (or is that Italian-American?).
Nations can get quite fussy about national technologies. The Soviet Union was notorious for its lists of Russian inventors of Western technologies. Americans have not always been fond of European or Japanese cars. In the mid to late 20th century, Canada had a misplaced if widely believed self-image problem of being a bit of an un-innovative, conservative, branch-plant technological laggard.
Its all a little odd that the nation must be the unit of measurement when so much of technology and so much of sport is global–like the Olympics–or local–like the millions of organized leagues and unorganized pickup athletes everywhere. And so despite the cynicism we can level at the Olympics and the media circus that surrounds it, there is a little, even surprising, flame of hope to be found in the Olympic Charter: the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries, and the International Olympic Committee simply does not draw up an official global ranking by country. So all those tables and rankings of gold vs total medals are just the jingoist exercise we all knew them to be and it is the athletes that matter, not the nations. (I’m just glad it hasn’t become the transnational corporate games yet, for while I prefer Coke over Pepsi I’d never been able to choose between Nike and Adidas. )
Reminder: STV404 New course for Fall 2011 September 6, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : Announcements, STV404 , comments closed
When you see the phrase “Made in Canada”, what does that tell you about a technology? Are there particular or peculiar characteristics that make a technology somehow “Canadian”? Does it matter who invented it or who uses it? Where it’s made, or where it is used? Does it look, feel, act, or smell “Canadian”? Do the technologies have to be objects or can they be processes or something else? How should we understand technologies that seem indelibly connected to the Canadian national dreams, mythology, identity, culture or sports? In a similar vein, what have Canadians thought about technology? These questions, and more, will be addressed in the new course for Fall 2011, STV 404: Technology in Canadian Society.
Enrolment is open right now for students in any faculty (engineering students should note that STV404 is a List A and List C course for the Complementary Studies Electives). Interested students who don’t meet the immediate prerequisites (any previous STV course), should still contact the instructor, Dr. Scott Campbell, to discuss the course.
“I’ve been working on the Facebook, all the livelong day” August 9, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV404 , comments closed
Is there a better technological symbol of Canadian nationhood than the railway? Unquestionably, the Canadian Pacific Railway was vital to the foundation of the country, and the image of Lord Strathcona hammering “The Last Spike” is one every school child must encounter at some point in their Canadian history lectures.
E. J. Pratt’s epic poem, “Towards the Last Spike” memorializes the moment, but according to one dissertation Pratt may be the exception to the rule, at least culturally speaking: “Canadian literature has in fact made very little deliberate effort to propagate the idea that the railway is a vital symbol of Canadian unity and identity.”
While investigating this, I was reading R. Douglas Francis’ The Technological Imperative in Canada and came across a remarkable passage describing the Victorian experience of railways, particularly among those who grew up in the pre-rail era:
It was only yesterday; but what a gulf between now and then! Then was the old world. Stage-coaches, more or less swift, riding-horses, pack-horses, highway-men, knights in armour, Norman invaders, Roman legions, Druids, Ancient Britons painted blue, and so forth — all these belong to the old period… But your railroad starts the new era, and we of a certain age belong to the new times and the old one. We are of the time of chivalry as well as the Black Prince of Sir Walter Manny. We are of the age of steam.
Could anyone in their mid-thirties or older not read that and think that instead of railroads, we ought to substitute the internet? How easily it can be rewritten to coincide with the opening decade of the 21st century:
It was only yesterday; but what a gulf between now and then! Then was the old world. Postcards, more or less swift, newspapers, books, the six o’clock news, TV networks, news anchors, hockey on the radio, encyclopedias printed on paper, and so forth — all these belong to the old period… But your internet starts the new era, and we of a certain age belong to the new times and the old one. We are of the time of fingers smudged with ink as well as Black Prince of Hollinger International. We are of the age of electronics.
The whole thing could possibly be drawn from the Beloit Mindset list, the annual tongue-in-cheek list of common knowledge that an 18 year old entering university or college won’t have. (From this year’s list: “12. Clint Eastwood is better known as a sensitive director than as Dirty Harry.”) The list that probably wouldn’t exist without email (it started as a popular email forward in the late 1990s) but ironically has now been published in a book.
Progress? Everything old is new again? History repeating itself? Or am I just getting old?
Imagine your final meal… July 29, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV404 , comments closed
Bear with me for a moment. I’ll return to the title of this post in a minute.
What, do you suppose, is good example of a Canadian technology? A hockey stick? Perhaps, although I would note that these days there are more Canadians on the soccer field than the ice rink. (Should that matter? Windmills and wooden clogs are symbols of the Dutch, yet both have fallen from use).
We’ll be working on this question of technological nationality in STV404, but one approach we’ll take is the comparative one. What is, for example, an American technology? Writing in The Atlantic several months ago, Nicholas Jackson presented the mousetrap as the best symbol of the American ingenuity of the small-time entrepreneur. Ralph Waldo Emerson is said to have declared that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path you your door. Jackson’s inspiration was an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History which emphasized the mousetrap:
“We chose them to represent technology because the drive to ‘build a better mousetrap’ symbolized to us the American drive to innovate.”
After all, there have been over 4400 different mousetrap patents subitted in the United States since the 1830s. Unfortunately, what Emerson actually wrote was:
“If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.”
Which says less to me about innovation (and nothing about mice or the trapping thereof) than it does about the role of hard work ethic, decent skills and good natural resources when it comes to success. Either way, I’m not sure that any of these characteristics are unique to America. Don’t Canadians work hard? Do we lack skills? Are we not famous for our natural resources?
Ah, but Jackson’s point is that most mousetrap patents have never made anyone any money. Instead, there are a handful of standouts, manufactured in the millions by a few large companies for decades on end with few changes, and anything new in this field would have an incredibly steep hill to climb. Does the mousetrap represent a lost American dream? Does it represent the small-time entrepreneur who is powerless against the Walmarts and big-box home-improvement stores? Or, like Hamlet, is Jackson’s choice a provocation, some sort of play-within-a-play, an attempt catch the conscience of a king, to spark a stronger response: surely, there are better American technologies than a mousetrap? (Okay, that last one is a stretch) .
Or, could the mousetrap some sort of indictment of the artificiality and industrial processing and production of American culture? You’re a mouse. You smell something familiar, perhaps edible and approach it. It’s a piece of cheese, sitting on a trap. So, your final meal: will it be American cheese, or real cheese? (Okay, that one is even worse).
Ultimately, I suspect that this challenge of understanding what it takes for a particular technology to acquire this status as a national symbol, endowed one with the ideal (or corrupted) national character or identity will prove more difficult than it seems, cheese or no cheese.
Hewers of wood, drawers of water, bloggers of …? July 20, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV404 , comments closed
Establishing a Canadian identity is notoriously difficult. As Northrop Frye once wrote:
One disadvantage of living in Canada is that one is continually called upon to make statements about the Canadian identity, and Canadian identity is an eminently exhaustible subject.
Take for instance, a simple phrase from Harold Innis, who once indicated that we are a nation of “hewers of wood, and drawers of water”. It is part of his staples theory, in which Canada’s cultural, political, and economic history and status can be traced to the extraction and exploitation of resources, including timber, lumber and water, but also beaver fur, cod fish, wheat, and metals. Typically, these natural resources have been exported to either the British or the Americans empires, or both. (It is no coincidence that much of the English-language Canadian identity is wrapped in comparisons and contrasts with the British and Americans.)
Innis was developing these ideas mid 20th century, but I suspect that in these more secular times, most people don’t realize it’s a biblical turn of phrase (from Joshua 9), well worn before the question of Canadian identity might even have appeared, and really not all that positive. In Joshua, to be a hewer of wood or drawer of water (a woodcutter or water carrier) is to be a slave to the community. These are menial tasks that Joshua selected deliberately for a group of people to punish them for an act of deception. In the 18th or 19th century, many writers rejected the label outright, and understood that to be hewer or drawer was, at the very least, to be of the lower class, landless, or to accept a yoke of enslavement to another. Innis was not exactly complementing Canadians, it was a clear observation on Canada’s history as a colony whose role was to deliver the raw materials and resources to sustain industrialization and empires elsewhere.
Nonetheless, it remains a popular, easy expression that resonates. Google offers up many modern uses and variants:
- “Hewers of wood, drawers of subsidy“, from an undated but recent Financial Post article criticizing political policies that would subsidize the traditional resource industries.
- “Hewers of wood, pumpers of oil“, from a 2004 Canadian Auto Workers newsletter describing and criticizing Canada’s role in the modern world as an exporter of natural resources and raw materials for global industries.
- “From Hewers of Wood to Purveyors of Technology“, from a 2010 Federal Government report on Western Economic Diversification encouraging new “high-tech, green tech, petrochemical, or advanced materials manufacturing” in addition to resource-driven activities.
The fuller meaning of the phrase is sometimes lost, but it came across quite literally in an article in the Globe and Mail last month:
Oil, lumber and water are crucial resources, but some of Canada’s most coveted assets in coming years could be sprawling server farms that are cooled with the winter air and hidden away in non-descript buildings from coast-to-coast.
Unfortunately, the original print title “Hewers of wood, storers of data” is not online and one of the least catchy versions of that phrase, but it still caught my eye. And consider how well it captures the relevant aspects of Canada’s natural resources (brrr! it’s cold here!) and the original and somewhat demeaning notion of servant (unadorned facilities designed to process, store and serve data to the rest of the world). Thanks to the internet, the innovation can happen anywhere else in the world. Indeed, as the article notes, over 60% of the Canadian server farm clientele is international.
Would many Canadians identify with this particular crossing of technological and climatological fortune? I don’t know. Certainly, the challenges of long-distance communication were integral to the Canadian identity in the 20th century (consider the role of Anik-A1 with respect to the Canadian North). But what can be said of identity with respect to an “invisible” technology that is physically non-descript and symbolizes the shattering of national borders? We’ll work on some answers in the new STV404 course this fall.
But can it play shinny? April 12, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV404 , comments closed
Walking to work this morning through the new Engineering 5 building on campus, I got to see a robot play hockey.
Well, it wasn’t playing hockey, per se, but it fired a slapshot or two. It’s “the first ever robot capable of properly mimicking the professional slap shot”, a product of UW professor John McPhee and several Mechanical Engineering undergraduates. The purpose of the project and the company founded to promote it, Hockey Robotics, is to figure out the hows and whys of hockey stick breakage, particularly in the modern world of composite sticks. (For what it’s worth, McPhee is a faculty member in the Systems Design Engineering Department, and CSTV is partially linked with Systems Design, but this blog post is purely that of serendipity. I happened to catch the team filming a promotional video).
The inevitable comparison might be to wonder “will this eventually lead to robots playing hockey?” It doesn’t look like there’s any place to lace up skates or strap on a helmet, and I doubt it could hop over the boards with those legs. But in a country that is willing to move federal election debates to accommodate hockey playoffs, almost anything hockey-related is fair game for discussion. I think that in the post-Watson era, people have probably come to understand that even if computers can reduce some drudgery (like Wikipedia replacing the need to memorize facts), computers are still in no danger of replacing humans outright, at least intellectually. Of course, there might be some factory workers going back, oh, two hundred years or so, that might have something to say about robotics and automation and employment. I wonder if in a few years we might witness the Luddites vs the Robots in an ice hockey championship. Would the humans underestimate the robots, or fear them? At the famous 1972 Summit Series, the Canadian all stars were famously casual about going up against “the Big Red Machine”. Just like the Slapshot XT? Hmm.
It all sounds a bit silly, but I remember many years ago reading a young-adult book Hockeyeurs cybernétiques by the Quebec writer Denis Côté. It was about that very thing: a team of human players going up against a robotic hockey team sponsored by a robot manufacturer. The subtext of the book was of robots replacing humans, creating rampant unemployment and a new social class, les inactifs. As I recall, the story featured a three game series between the teams, described in great detail, but I what can’t remember is who won!
And what might happen if Hockey Robotics does end up helping make a better hockey stick? I’m not a hockey player and claim no great insights here, but technological improvements have not always lead to overall sporting improvements. Edward Tenner’s 1997 book Why Things Bite Back had two chapters about the revenge effects of sports technologies: The Risks of Intensification, and the increase in chronic injuries and health problems that ironically often come about from better sporting safety equipment, and The Paradoxes of Improvement, on the problems of technologies that are simply too good for sport. With regards to the first, its is often observed that athletes that participate in contact sports with considerable padding and protective equipment are often more likely to suffer serious injuries — the armor everyone wears make it easier to hit harder then necessary to complete a check or hit. As for the second, there are many instances of technology simplifying or otherwise reducing some human element giving an unfair advantage, going against the general sense of fair play expected in sport; alternately, new technologies can disrupt the game, changing the manner of play, and creating in effect a technological-sports hybrid. Composite hockey sticks that break less often doesn’t seem too risky, but what if the same sticks made accurate slapshots easier or more reliable for more players, particularly those beneath the NHL elite? Would hockey scores start to creep up? Would it change the strategies and game plans? Would it initiate and eventually escalate a war between goalie equipment and hockey stick manufacturers? Will leagues start to crack down on the “Canadian robot sticks”?
Perhaps I’m out of my depth here (offside? or two minutes for interference?) I wish the team the best of luck, and that it would generally improve, rather than detract from the game.
Water-Water-Water. Loo-Loo-Loo. March 22, 2011Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100, STV404 , comments closed
It’s World Water Day.
Although I missed the celebrations and heavy thinking on campus held in honor of the special day, I did note a local newpaper report that the Region of Waterloo is consuming less water, despite population growth.
Waterloo Region’s residents, businesses and municipalities used under 149,000 cubic metres of water per day in 2009, down from 165,000 nine years earlier, according to a report from the Region of Waterloo.
And that’s despite an expanding population that has added an extra 75,000 residents here since 2001.
“There’s a downward trend, and it’s across Ontario,” said Steve Gombos, manager of water efficiency for the Region of Waterloo.
What came to mind when I saw the headline was if this somehow contradicted the Jevons Paradox, which has been mentioned here in the past and holds (roughly) that gains in technological efficiency very often lead to increased, not decreased, consumption of a resource. Stanley Jevons was thinking about steam engine efficiency and coal consumption in mid 19th century Scotland, but even modern economists have observed the effect and postulated answers:
Energy efficiency gains can increase energy consumption by two means: by making energy appear effectively cheaper than other inputs; and by increasing economic growth, which pulls up energy use. (Henry Saunders, 1992, quoted in Horace Herring, E. 1998. “Does Energy Efficiency Save Energy: The Implications of accepting the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate.)
The local newpaper article points to gains in efficiency, such as the push for low-flow toilets and repairing leaks in public water mains, as an important driver of the decrease in water consumption. I don’t know if a low-flow toilet will make anyone “go” more often, but presumably gains from fewer leaks would mean in principle that the price of water could come down and people might be inclined to use more–a longer shower maybe, or a more lush lawn or garden. But, there also have been regulatory changes contributing to the decreased consumption: lawn watering has been curtailed significantly in the past few years with peak water use bylaws. This is important because the Jevons paradox doesn’t apply if conservation efforts are imposed.
But the catch is that a big cause for the drop in water consumption is a decrease in industrial activity in the region, and I suspect, across the province. Using rounded figures from the article, to produce a single car might take 150 000 liters of water, but a single person in Waterloo uses only 250 liters a day. In other words, two years of my life to use as much as a single new Toyota or Ford.
Unfortunately, the article doesn’t distinguish which changes had a bigger effect on water consumption but I will harbor my own suspicions for now (car sales are down) and continue to worry. If all we’ve done is export our industry overseas, we’re just exporting our water problem. Canada might have some of the largest supplies of freshwater in the world, but we remain one of the worst when it comes to efficient water consumption. Most Canadians simply don’t care about water efficiency, Jevons paradox or not. Is it really prudent to export that problem?
Maybe I should have gone to the talks.