Bold research, better cities

Finding solutions for the cities of today—and tomorrow—at the new Centre for Urban Innovation
By: Dan Falk

June 04, 2019

Terence Boateng, a master of nutrition communication student, demonstrates the egg-shaped BodPod in the Nutrition Discovery Labs.
Photo: Nathan Cyprys.

Every day, millions of Torontonians wake up, switch on the lights, jump in the shower, make breakfast, rarely pausing to think about the energy, water and food that fuel their day—or their city. All of these elements are given close attention, however, at Ryerson’s new state-of-the-art Centre for Urban Innovation (CUI) where researchers and students are working to provide solutions for the cities of the future.

Supported by a $19.8-million investment from the federal government, the 40,000-square-foot research, incubation and commercialization hub is located at 44 Gerrard Street East, a building that dates back to the 1880s. The new structure, designed by Moriyama and Teshima Architects, deftly incorporates much of the older building’s façade and walls, creating a stunning and seamless combination of old and new.

How diet and exercise impact human health
“Guaranteed—this is the original brickwork,” says Nick Bellissimo, a professor in the School of Nutrition, running his hand along the exposed stone as he shows me around the CUI past what are unmistakably 19th-century foundations.

But Bellissimo is much more excited about the future than the past. As director of the Nutrition Discovery Labs, external link, a multi-laboratory space within the CUI, he and his colleagues are investigating how diet, exercise, biomarkers and environmental factors impact human health.

The lab features an array of high-tech fitness assessment equipment, including the egg-shaped BodPod, which assesses body composition; a calorimeter that measures the body’s metabolic rate; and a “body composition analyzer” that uses ultrasound to give precise readouts of fat and lean tissue within the muscles. There’s also a 3D body circumference analyzer that can tell your waist-versus-hip circumference – a set of numbers that can be more helpful than just knowing your weight, Bellissimo says.

Professional athletes often use his testing service in the Nutrition & Exercise Testing (NexT) lab, along with Ryerson’s own student-athletes. Members of the public can also use the equipment and benefit from the quantitative information that can help them achieve their health and fitness goals, he says.

A sensory booth in the Nutrition Discovery Labs where researchers measure response to the smell, taste and texture of food. Photo: Nathan Cyprys.

In the lab, you can play a video game while exercising; the effect of “screen time” on eating behaviours is a subject of intense interest, especially concerning children’s health. There are also “sensory booths” where researchers can measure a subject’s response to the smell, taste and texture of food. That food might come from the adjacent kitchen, where researchers can design new kinds of foods, or it might be provided by an industry partner keen on tweaking its product to satisfy its customers’ preferences.

Designing better-for-you foods
The CUI was designed to nurture collaboration, and one of the most productive interactions has been between Bellissimo and Dérick Rousseau, a professor in Ryerson’s Department of Chemistry and Biology. In 2017, Bellissimo and Rousseau were awarded a $5.2 million grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to research the development of food with health-enhancing properties and help counter Canada’s growing obesity epidemic.

Rousseau also leads the Food and Soft Materials Research Group at the CUI. While Bellissimo studies eating habits, Rousseau focuses on the physical properties of different food, with one aim to make it healthier (for example, by replacing synthetic ingredients with naturally occurring ingredients), extending its shelf life, or simply making it more palatable.

Rousseau thinks about food the way an engineer might think about bricks, beams and columns—everything depends on how they fit together. “Foods are like Lego pieces” he says. “What we do is think about how to make those Lego pieces fit together so that we can control how they break down.

“How food is organized into structures will invariably have an impact on its shelf-life, how it’s perceived by the human tongue, how it’s digested, and on its texture,” he says. That means studying how proteins, carbohydrates and fats can be associated (or structured) and examining their effect on the texture and sensory properties of food, and how they break down in the stomach.

Consider texture. We’re usually too busy enjoying what we eat to really think about why we’re enjoying it, but texture is a huge factor, Rousseau says. He has worked with a number of industry partners interested in replacing fatty ingredients with low-fat alternatives, while maintaining texture. “They come to us because of our expertise and our research equipment,” he says.

With the incoming suite of CFI tools, his research group is increasingly positioned to tackle new food challenges. “We are about to welcome a unique instrument that combines high-resolution imaging at the nano-scale using an electron microscope with spectroscopy to deduce the molecular structure of chemical compounds. Understanding how molecules are stuck together like Lego and the structures they form is a very important way to design better-for-you foods,” he says.

But it’s not just about taste and texture. People can have any number of reasons for preferring one kind of food over another, or for avoiding certain foods altogether. They might be lactose or gluten intolerant; or they might choose not to eat animal-based proteins, for example. So Rousseau and his colleagues try to develop foods with similar tastes and textures that people can eat. “The growing diversity in Toronto means that the food industry is hyper-specializing,” he says.

“A perfect example is the development of meatless burgers or vegan cheeses made from alternative protein sources. We’re getting to the point where developing such products is increasingly commonplace. However, the science underpinning such products is lagging behind—this is where we come in. We link fundamental science with real-world applications.”

Another major piece of equipment developed by Bellissimo and Rousseau is called the Dynamic Gastric Model, a research tool that simulates the different parts of the human digestive system—mouth, stomach, intestines and all. The goal is to see how food breaks down in the various portions of the gastro-intestinal track, and to quantify which products of the digestion process have significant health benefits.

Now that he’s set up in the CUI, Rousseau is looking forward to working even more closely with Bellissimo and his team to improve the health of Canadians. “We’re working toward building a research centre focused on nutrition and food science research,” he says. And he couldn’t dream of a better place to be doing it. “This building is phenomenal. It’s wonderful for promoting and enhancing research collaborations. It’s a showcase for what Ryerson does well—a real gem.”

A healthy, sustainable water cycle for the city
In another section of the CUI, Nick Reid is focused on water. As the executive director of Ryerson Urban Water (RUW), he’s interested in the urban water cycle, and how to keep it healthy for the millions of city-dwellers who depend on it. He and his colleagues investigate everything from the quality of the water we drink to the technologies used for cleaning water and wastewater to storm water management. “Our over-arching goal is to try to achieve a healthy, sustainable urban water cycle,” he says.

In the basement is RUW’s remarkable “AQUAbox Experimental Lab,” where researchers can experiment with environments that mimic those of a real city and its surroundings, especially its wetlands. Roughly the size of two tennis courts, the lab houses an enormous metal tank—a wetland simulator—that stretches the full length of the facility filled with soil, plants, and of course water. The tank can be used as a single two-metre-by-16-metre basin, or can be divided into eight square cells, each two metres on a side—or any other combination that’s needed.

Kruti Shukla, a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry and biology, works on an experiment using electromagnetic fields to improve water quality. Photo: Nathan Cyprys.

A typical experiment, Reid explains, might be to vary one environmental parameter along the length of the tank—the salinity for example—while keeping everything else constant. “Wetlands play a vital role in cleaning our water as it makes its way through the environment, back to the rivers and lakes, and in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” Reid says. “So it’s vital that we figure out how we can best nurture wetlands, and understand their function.”

Solving traffic snarl ups
Efficiently moving people around our urban centres is the focus of another lab within the CUI, the Laboratory of Innovations in Transportation (LiTrans). There, Bilal Farooq, who is a Canada Research Chair in Disruptive Transportation Technologies and Services, uses big data and virtual reality to ensure that our streets are ready for autonomous vehicles and other innovations, so that we can all share the road safely.

Data central
An entire lab at CUI, the Data Science Laboratory, focuses exclusively on data-oriented problem solving. Ayse Bener, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, says the lab specializes in using AI (artificial intelligence) and machine-learning techniques. The research she and her colleagues have been doing has applications in transportation, health care, finance, software development, and other fields.

“We develop software that mimics experts in different domains, and try to understand how an expert solves a particular problem,” she says. “And then we can teach the machine to work like that expert, to come up with a solution.”

Science students in the Science Discovery Zone, a hub for projects and startups focused on evidence-based innovation now housed in CUI. Photo: Nathan Cyprys.

Saving energy
Along with food and water, energy is another vital element of urban life. At Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Energy, housed in the CUI, Bala Venkatesh, the centre’s academic director, focuses on finding sustainable solutions to critical urban-energy challenges faced by electric utilities. One of the labs that he oversees is the Schneider Electric Smart Grid Laboratory that acts like a scaled-down version of the infrastructure you’d find in an electrical utility, from transformers and control systems to the computers that handle the vast streams of data such a system produces.

“We can physically duplicate what a utility would have on the street, or in one of their sub-stations,” Venkatesh says. “This allows us to visualize how it’ll actually function when you connect it, as opposed to relying on a computer model.” The lab, funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, will be important for testing new technologies before they’re deployed in our cities, he says. The equipment in the smart grid lab was part of a $500,000 in-kind donation from Schneider Electric Canada.

Visiting student Barbara Rosado (right) and research assistant Mohammadreza Vatani in the Centre for Urban Energy. Photo: Nathan Cyprys.

The university already has a strong track record of collaboration with local energy providers. In 2016, with funding provided by the Ontario Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, Ryerson worked with Toronto Hydro and Ontario-based manufacturer eCAMION to develop a pole-mounted energy-storage device. It can be charged during off-peak hours and boost the available electricity in homes during peak hours. So far, one of these devices—a white box containing the equivalent of more than 2,000 cell phone batteries—has been deployed on a residential street near Keele Street and Sheppard Avenue West. The device’s technical merits were proven during a 12-month pilot project and may become a standard feature on utility poles throughout the city.

Anything that helps city-dwellers use energy more efficiently is an important step forward, Venkatesh says. And how we use energy—and food and water as well—is only going to become more critical in the decades ahead, as Toronto faces a period of unprecedented growth. Already the fourth-largest city in North America, Toronto is home to 2.8 million people, while nearly six million live in the surrounding metropolitan area—and that figure could double in the next 50 years. What each of those people can do, Venkatesh says, is take the time to think about where the energy they use is coming from. “We see the outlet, the light from our lamps, the warmth from our heaters,” he says. “But where is it coming from, and what is it doing to the environment? And how can we be a part of ensuring that, whatever actions we take, we work toward saving this planet not just for ourselves, but for the next generation?”

This story appears in the June edition of the Ryerson University Magazine. Read the whole issue, external link online. It’s also available as an accessible edition, external link.

Dan Falk (@danfalk), Journalism ’92, is a science journalist based in Toronto. His books include The Science of Shakespeare and In Search of Time.