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Toronto's city builders: Incoming Ryerson University president Dr. Mohamed Lachemi on partnerships

In this special series of interviews, YongeStreet sits down for a chat to get to know some of the most prominent city builders whose work, vision and passion for the city help shape Toronto’s present and future.

What are the components of a great city?

Most people would name great buildings, perhaps arts and culture, a thriving economy. Probably fewer would name science and technology. But Dr. Mohamed Lachemi, newly appointed president of Ryerson University, sees them as a vital ingredient in the urban mix.

Why? “Simply because of the talent that you bring to the city,” he says. “If you look at cities around the world and the economic impact they have on their countries, the real driver for the 21st century is knowledge. We don’t really depend anymore on natural resources; the most important thing is human capital.” In his new position, Lachemi is very concerned with the ways Ryerson can have an impact on the city around it.

Cultural attractions draw visitors to a city, he says, but a vibrant entrepreneurial landscape draws long-term residents who enrich the city just by being here. “If you compare Toronto to other places, they attract people, but they don’t keep them there. Maths, science, technology and engineering, when they’re mixed with arts and culture, they add to the beauty of life.”

Lachemi, who was appointed president and vice-chancellor of the university last April 4, joined the faculty as a professor of civil engineering in 1998. Since then, he has held progressively senior roles within the institution as it has completed its transformation from a polytechnical college to a downtown university with connections to some of the city’s most important cultural, educational and business institutions.

“The way that we describe ourselves in our academic plan and strategic plan is that we are an urban university, a city builder and an innovation university,” he says. “If you put all these things together, our mandate is to offer our students the best possible experiences, but also to contribute to the fabric of our great city and to engage with the communities around us. We are not living in silos. We benefit from Toronto, and Toronto benefits from our presence.”

One project that exemplifies this approach is iBest, the new Institute for Biomedical Engineering and Science Technology, formed in partnership with St. Michael’s Hospital. “That’s natural for us, because it’s a partnership between two great institutions,” Lachemi says, adding that iBest allows its researchers “to see the future in a better way and find solutions to problems we are facing in the 21st century.”

Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ) is receiving international recognition. “We are very proud of this innovation that we are creating in Toronto,” he says. “The DMZ is now ranked as the leading university business incubator in Canada; all over the world, people will recognize the DMZ is based in Toronto. In five years, we have incubated more than 200 startups, raised over $120 million and created more than 2,000 jobs.”

If Ryerson is changing the landscape in a metaphoric sense, it’s also literally helping to transform the physical cityscape in the neighbourhood around Yonge and Gerrard. For instance, the University was the catalyst for the transformation of the abandoned 1931-vintage Maple Leaf Gardens—a National Historic Site—into the Mattamy Athletic Centre. Besides a rink, the arena now boasts gyms, basketball courts and studios used by Ryerson Rams teams, as well as a street-facing mega-Loblaws.

“It’s part of our culture; it’s part of our history,” says Lachemi. “It was closed for years and years until Ryerson came up with a partnership with Loblaws to preserve the most historic arena in Toronto. Now the Mattamy Centre is used by our students, but it’s also used by the community.”

Similarly, the new Student Learning Centre (SLC) at Yonge and Gould literally removes barriers between the University and the outside world with its glass-clad exterior, and shakes up routine patterns of thought by breaking up the traditional rectangularity of the surrounding architecture.

Opened in early 2015, “The Student Learning Centre is considered as one of the best library buildings in the world,” Lachemi says. At Gould and Bond, the SLC is figuratively mirrored by the illuminated glass of the Ryerson Image Centre, a remodelled industrial building, which, he says, “is home to one of the most famous photo collections in the world. It’s an opportunity for our faculty and our students, but we are also making Toronto an international destination for photography.”

A Toronto booster, Lachemi says he believes that “we have everything to be proud of, based on my experience interacting with people from all over the world. Many people see our city as one of the best places to live in the world. We have a vibrant art and culture scene, a strong business community and a large presence of financial institutions. We have an excellent quality of life, and we are also being noticed as a leading city in increased presence in sustainability. There is always that role that the University should play to help the city to be recognized.”

Lachemi says he’s facing a “so many ideas; so little time” situation with his tenure as president. “I would say I would do everything possible with our partners to continue to give to this perspective of being a hub for innovation,” he says, naming innovation and entrepreneurship in the fields of sports and creative industries like media, theatre and fashion as areas where Ryerson could do more. “The biomedical area is another area where I would like us to be a leader,” he adds, and “we have more opportunities to do more with creativity in the design area; to offer beauty to our city is important to us.”

In all of these spheres, Ryerson’s focus is both inwards, towards its faculty and students, and outwards, connecting with the rest of the city. “The members of our community are engaged in partnerships and dialogues, but also in many activities that contribute to our city. That’s in our DNA,” Lachemi says.

“We don’t have walls between us and the community around us.”
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