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COLUMN: Culture change key to climate change action

by Colin Isaacs
EcoLog, 1/3/2020 2:55:00 PM

A new decade is often seen as presenting an opportunity for a new beginning on some of the challenges we face, though of course there is nothing really transformational about the human construct of a new decade. 

However, one hope for a more sustainable approach in the new decade might be contained in a 2019 article, “How to Change a System: Canadian Transit”, from the Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC). While this is not a magic bullet, it may contain some worthwhile ideas to assist industry action on climate change, almost certainly one of the most serious challenges facing Canadian and global society in 2020. 

Dr. Josipa Petrunic, CUTRIC’s executive director and CEO, points out in the 2019 article and online audio interview that solutions to the problems facing our urban transit systems are not primarily technological but cultural. Electric transit is a well-established technology but we are still installing and expanding diesel bus and rail systems instead of the more environmentally and socially responsible electric transportation systems. 

CUTRIC identified the key problems of our adherence to diesel-based transit systems as:

  • air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions
  • long-term cost
  • service levels and speed of service, and
  • failing to take advantage of the opportunity to make Canada a global hub of electrified transportation technology. 

A survey of transit agencies found that the obstacles to beating these problems include:

  • that new electric transit systems have a capital cost greater than that of diesel but cost was not the big obstacle
  • that operators are not familiar with electric transit technologies and hence cannot predict the business risks
  • that transit staff are overwhelmingly diesel mechanics, not electricians, and
  • that people are wary of electric because some electric pilot programs did not go exactly to plan. 

Petrunic says in her article that the transit world is a conservative one that does not like change or risk. 

Under her leadership, the organization set out in 2016 to change the culture and to make electric transit the new norm in Canada. The initiative was led off through a partnership among three transit systems and the transit vehicle manufacturing industry. 

First, CUTRIC persuaded the bus manufacturing industry to implement standardized charging systems so that vehicles from one manufacturer could use chargers built by another. The transit operators did not want to be tied to a single supplier. The industry agreed on condition that the three participating transit agencies would continue to purchase the conforming buses and charging systems. 

Second, Petrunic addressed the need for diversity in decision-making to advance creative thinking. To demonstrate the value of diversity, CUTRIC has made a start by implementing gender parity on its board. 

Third, she described how it is necessary to work with champions. It is not necessary to change the entire world but it is necessary to involve one or two champions who see the opportunity and who are prepared to make a beneficial change in their department that will provide leadership to others. 

Fourth, the leaders have to be prepared to push very hard for their objective in order to achieve the change in culture that will lead to the outcomes they are seeking. 

The challenges that CUTRIC is working on are specific to transit but the lessons are applicable to almost any industry. Properly defining the obstacles to meaningful change, developing solutions, and implementing changes of culture in the ways in which things are done will often be more productive, economically, environmentally, and socially than trying to solve problems through technology alone. 

A work, “Gray, B., & Stites, J.P. 2013. Sustainability through Partnerships: Capitalizing on Collaboration” from the Network for Business Sustainability (a Canadian non-profit that produces authoritative resources on important sustainability issues with the goal of changing management practice), provides a more in-depth look at best practices in how collaboration among different types of organizations can produce previously unimagined solutions. It is recommended reading for all managers and executives who are seeking stimulating ideas for a move towards sustainability in their sector.

Colin Isaacs is a scientist and analyst with CIAL Group who focuses on sustainable development for business. He was selected by Environment Canada to be the principal author of the waste management chapter in the report The State of Canada’s Environment 1991. Colin can be reached at (416) 410-0432 (phone), (416) 362-5231 (fax), and colin@cialgroup.com (e-mail).

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