Feb. 23, 2022

Non-traditional research into infrastructure for Indigenous communities is 1 of 6 projects to receive federal innovation funding

Civil and environmental engineer receives funding to 'bring research to community'
Kerry Black
Kerry Black. Sarah Murdoch, Modern Photography

A civil and environmental engineer from the Schulich School of Engineering will take a mobile research station to Indigenous communities across Alberta to “foster a collaborative space” and work with the communities to develop sustainable infrastructure solutions. 

Dr. Kerry Black, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering, has been awarded more than $130,000 from Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) toward a $327,000  research program aimed at solving the ongoing infrastructure crisis in Canadian Indigenous communities.

Black’s project is one of six from UCalgary to receive funding through CFI’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF). “Complex global challenges require innovative solutions, and many solutions require cutting-edge infrastructure to become a reality,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “This investment will equip our researchers with the tools they need to have a tangible, positive impact on our communities.” 

Goal is collaborative research, dialogue

Black and her colleagues will “bring collaborative research to community” with the help of a mobile station that includes interview space, drones, video and other equipment. “It's not just about bringing fancy equipment and doing tests. It's about bringing a space to engage and have dialogue to talk about experiences and relationships and co-develop solutions,” says Black, the Canada Research Chair, Integrated Knowledge, Engineering & Sustainable Communities for the Centre for Environmental Engineering Research and Education (CEERE). 

The mobile station will facilitate both technical and non-technical research in partnership with communities to co-define research objectives and solutions for the built environment that will improve health and well-being. Many Indigenous communities depend on wells, cisterns and septic systems. As well as exploring these water and wastewater issues, researchers will look at air quality in homes and learning environments, radon or any other radiation issues.

The history of housing in First Nations has been riddled with poor builds and chronic underfunding. There's a lot of quality and structural issues.
- Kerry Black

But a technical answer to an Indigenous infrastructure challenge is only “a Band-Aid” if it doesn’t come with understanding the historical impacts and harms done through western-defined research programs.

“Engineers can develop the best drinking water treatment technologies in the world, but if we are not book ending that process with an understanding of the context that we are applying it in and book ending that with knowledge, translation and mobilization and resourcing, then it doesn't solve a problem,” Black says. 

The researchers will work with First Nations communities across Canada, identifying objectives collaboratively, depending on the community’s need, and built on Black’s existing relationships. “It's not just we're there for a month and then we leave,” she says.

“This is supplementing ongoing long-term collaborations and engaging in dialogue about how we might be able to work together and talk about how we might co-develop tools that are actually useful at the community level.”

People, not technology, make the difference

Black and her colleagues will challenge the status-quo approach. “We still think that technology is the answer to the major problems in the world, when in reality, it's not. It's the people that are really going to make the most difference,” she says. Her approach focuses on community-based participatory research that prioritizes community needs, first and foremost. 

The mobile station and research program are intended to help make “meaningful progress in addressing the long-standing infrastructure gap in Indigenous nations,” says Black, “and peel back the layers of a colonial system that has disconnected individuals from their land and place and help on the path towards reconciliation.”

The six UCalgary research projects to receive CFI JELF funding are:

  • Dr. Kerry Black, PhD (Schulich School of Engineering): “Healthy and Resilient Communities Through Participatory Approaches to Sustainable Infrastructure”
  • Dr. Laura Curiel, PhD (Schulich School of Engineering): “Multiaxial Ultrasound Transducers for High Precision Transcranial Therapy”
  • Dr. Kim Keekyoung, PhD (Schulich School of Engineering): “Next Generation 3D Bioprinting for Organ-on-Chips”
  • Dr. Artem Korobenkco, PhD (Schulich School of Engineering): “Intelligent Flow Control and FSI Research Facility for Wind Energy and Autonomous Systems”
  • Dr. Alfred Lehar, PhD (Haskayne School of Business): “Decentralized Finance”
  • Dr. Derya Sargin, PhD (Faculty of Arts): “Impact of Early Life Stress on Brain Networks and Mood Regulation”