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October 2019

Inuit knowledge and technology work in tandem to address global warming

At a glance
The challenge

Climate change threatens normal ice conditions in northern Canada, making ice travel precarious.

The solution

SmartICE combines traditional knowledge with technology to provide insight into local ice conditions

The outcome

With insight into local ice conditions, hunting and transport becomes safer

What's next

SmartICE expands to more communities and creates additonal employment opportunities

The team

Anne Irvin, Post-doctoral fellow and Professor Trevor Bell, Memorial University

For most tech startups, innovation reigns supreme. For SmartICE, a company of less than twelve, coupling new technology with traditional Inuit knowledge has been the key to their success.

As Executive Director of SmartICE Carolann Harding says, “We are a social enterprise first and foremost, and we take that very seriously. To us, maximizing a positive social impact with our community partners is our top priority.”  

The Start of SmartICE

As climate change began causing ice conditions to become less predictable and more dangerous, Professor Trevor Bell of Memorial University started working with the Nunatsiavut government in Labrador in 2009 on the issue of safe ice travel and transportation. As ice becomes thinner and snowfall becomes greater, the likelihood of ice flooding with seawater increases, making the ice dangerous to traverse. As Professor Bell recalls, people were falling through the ice, and the incidences of search-and-rescue missions in the Nunatsiavut area increased. The need to create technology to allow for safe ice travel without replacing Inuit knowledge became clear.

It was this partnership, along with an Arctic Inspiration Prize grant in 2016, that allowed for SmartICE to transition from a university project to a social enterprise. SmartICE is the world’s first climate-change adaption tool, and it combines traditional knowledge of sea ice with remote monitoring technology and data acquisition. Combining these two approaches gives northern communities intel on sea-ice thickness and local ice conditions, showing them real-time measurements of sea-ice thickness on a phone application. This ultimately allows community members to see which routes are safe to travel across, and which routes should be avoided.

Mitacs initially partnered with SmartICE, which won a Governor General Innovation Award last year, by connecting recent engineering graduate Tyler Spurrell to the company, and Spurrell has since gone on to become employed full time as the Manager of Technical Operations at SmartICE.

SmartICE-Mitacs partnership continues

Mitacs and SmartICE have recently partnered on a new project that aims to advance SmartICE’s research and development initiatives. Postdoctoral fellow Anne Irvin, under the supervision of Professor Bell and through a Mitacs fellowship, is helping SmartICE expand its services for the benefit of Inuit communities by testing an instrument to map slush on ice. Another issue that affects people travelling across snow is dropping into slush, which overlies very thin ice. Anne is testing how slush develops along community trails, and how thick it is. As Professor Bell says, “Anne is using her sciences degrees to benefit society, and really mobilizing her knowledge to support action.”

Innovative technology and programs lead to local employment

Not only does SmartICE’s innovative technology positively impact northern communities’ safety, the technology offers local employment opportunities to build the resources necessary for the SmartICE sensors and buoys. SmartICE offers a unique pre-employment training program to the local youth that they employ in partner communities.

Shawna Dicker, Northern Logistics Coordinator for SmartICE and full-time student at Memorial University, shared that the inaugural eight-week program was “absolutely amazing. The youth were given the opportunity to see different and innovative ways to work with and within nature and the environment, and it was wonderful to see their leadership skills and confidence blossom.”  

This unique pre-employment training program currently hosts its second cohort of students. All participants from the first cohort progressed to full-time employment or returned to school with goals of seeking higher education.

Future partnering

SmartICE hopes that as their organization grows, so does its positive partnerships with the communities that deploy their technology.

As Shawna Dicker, who is Inuit from Nunatsiavut, says, “Everything is built on trust. We spread the word with the town council, the local RCMP, local businesses in the area that we are here to have a positive impact. We hire from within the community and we give back to the community, and we ensure that we are always staying true to that.”

Professor Bell echoes Shawna’s sentiments, emphasizing that “a crucial principle of SmartICE is self-determination by the Inuit community. This is not an instance of people from the south coming in to a community, deploying new technology, and leaving again. We hire and train community members to use SmartICE technology themselves, and to use it in combination with their knowledge. This is a shining example of how technology and traditional living knowledge can operate together.”

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan and Research Manitoba.