Creative marriage of art and technology sires Emily Carr rebirth

Along with many of her cabinet heavyweights and MLAs, Premier Christy Clark recently made an announcement that will have a profound impact on Vancouver.

Along with many of her cabinet heavyweights and MLAs, Premier Christy Clark recently made an announcement that will have a profound impact on Vancouver.

Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECU) ranked 11th globally by Red Dot Design, as one of the world's most innovative art and design universities, will, after 90 years, be reborn.

The Red Dot Design ranking honours innovative institutions for their pursuit of design excellence through a five-year compilation of their achievements in the Red Dot Design Award program. Emily Carr is the only Canadian institution to be named, and this is what it has accomplished out of a few crowded buildings on Granville Island.

ECU's new visual, media and design facility will cost an estimated $134 million, of which $113 million is earmarked from Victoria. The university and donors are expected to chip in $21 million. Construction should start by mid-2014 and be completed by mid-2016. The Great Northern Way (GNW) campus in East Vancouver is a former industrial site that UBC, SFU, BCIT and Emily Carr jointly own and are turning into a digital media hub for education and business. All four schools already jointly offer a master's of digital media degree program for graduate students, which is already a profound collaboration.

So what's the big deal? A bigger space for starving artist students to hang out in? So what.

ECU's effervescent president Ron Burnett challenges our thinking when he talks about bringing art and design and technology together at the site.

"Emily Carr's GNW campus will be at the centre of a new social, cultural, educational, entertainment and economic engine for British Columbia," Burnett said.

The starving artist cliché is passé. It has been replaced with the global phenomenon of "creative industries," which combine art, design, media, and technology with capital and business acumen. These industries are changing our world, and, interestingly, by far the most important capital in this mix is turning out to be human capital. And a lot of it is urban-centric human capital, which is good news for a Vancouver striving to be more green and sustainable in a more densely concentrated urban design.

That's the big deal.

Burnett visualizes the new ECU igniting more human capital potential in students who will study here, do co-ops and internships with top local companies, launch careers here, start up and build new creative industries here, raise families here, and, in a nutshell, pay taxes and generate significant economic impact in the Lower Mainland.

The impact will be felt around the world, too, because more foreign students will be able to attend ECU and more faculty will participate in exchanges. The global demand for ECU-developed talent, meanwhile, continues to grow.

More ECU students, faculty, administration, alumni and partners will contribute more to the new urban middle class in Vancouver.

While many urban centres today see old industries shut down, and middle class jobs replaced by low-income jobs, our creative industries are growing faster than B.C.'s overall economy. Almost a third of ECU alumni are entrepreneurs, either as owners of sole proprietorships or businesses with one or more employees.

"This is the design moment," said Alexandra Samuel, former director of ECU's Social+Interactive Media Centre. "For the past decade or so, we've seen design increasingly as a driver of corporate success – just look at Apple. Design has become the fundamental point of profitability."

In business, problem solving is key, and top B.C. companies like Telus, Vision Critical, Lululemon and Vancouver Coastal Health have recognized that some of the best problem solvers in the province come from ECU.

"Art and design education is really about highly creative, extremely expansive, critically informed problem-solving," according to David Bogen, the university's vice-president academic and provost. "The agile skills and kind of thinking that students develop is [what's] needed in the emerging economy."

Vision Critical partnered with ECU's SIM Centre to mesh its expertise with the school's smart design. "ECU was able to develop fantastic visual communications," said Andrew Reid, Vision Critical's founder, president and chief product officer.

"The role that visual design can play in allowing someone to understand data can't be overstated. The students apply their unique capability to our data, make it digestible and add a layer of emotion. There's an incredibly practical business-level value that can be driven from that skill set."

As I say, look for a reborn Emily Carr University of Art+Design to have a profound effect on Vancouver's future. •

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