Partnership and collaboration are words that come up again and again when talking about the history of the SmartICE project. The research project turned social enterprise began over 10 years ago when researchers at Memorial University began working with the Nunatsiavut Government to look at ice thickness on the Labrador north coast following an unusually warm winter.
Two inventions to help measure ice thickness — the SmartBUOY, and the SmartQAMUTIK — came from that, and the Sea-ice Monitoring and Real-Time Information for Coastal Environments (SmartICE) project was born.
Since then, the project has won many accolades for its work, including the 2016 Arctic Inspiration Prize, the Governor General’s Innovation Award and the 2020 President’s Award for Public Engagement Partnerships from Memorial University.
There has been a lot of interest in the technology from outside the province and the country, with sea ice changing worldwide.
A couple of years ago the project spun off SmartICE Inc., a social enterprise with a production facility in Nain, working with the community to employ young people to make the technology in cohorts and teaching them a variety of skills.
Carolann Harding, executive director of SmartICE Inc., said things like building bridges, partnerships, engagement and bringing social impact to the community are part of being a social enterprise.
“We’re a small organization and in order to grow, you need to have the supports around you and bring value to each other. It’s not just about us taking, it’s about the value of what we can give to each other,” she said.
Harding said when they set up the facility in Nain, which has been up and running for over a year, they were mindful of making sure to engage the community and give the community what it needed from the project.
In 2019 they got the building ready to go, and that’s where Rex Holwell came in. Holwell, who is from Nain, was hired as the northern production and regional operations lead for Nunatsiavut.
Holwell, who had previously worked in the resource industry, said he wanted to get involved with the social enterprise in his home community. He said when he came in the vision was already in place and his job was to implement it at the Nain facility.
In the summer of 2019, they held the first cohort of seven Inuit youth from the ages of 18 to 29, teaching them different job skills like hazard awareness and how to assemble the SmartBUOY.
“Things that would look good on a resume,” Holwell told SaltWire Network from his office in Nain. “We kind of knew from the start we were a stepping point for the youth.”
Holwell said they’re not like other employers, in that they don’t require prior work experience or specific education to take part. The cohorts are to help people in the community gain skills to help them find other jobs.
“We want the people who don’t have work experience or education, be their stepping stone to progress farther in their career,” he said. “Have we had that effect or not? I think so. We’re open to anybody.”
He said it’s a part of his job that he enjoys greatly, getting to know youth in the town better and helping them find employment.
“Maybe it’s being selfish, but sometimes I’ll see some of the youth from the cohorts and I’ll think, I might have had a smidgen to do with making their lives, the lives of their families, better, and there’s a great satisfaction from that.”
They’ve logged over 5,000 employment hours between the cohorts so far, with the fourth one coming up this summer.
Toward the end of the course, Holwell teaches the youths how to make the SmartBUOYs, and the ones they make are deployed across the Arctic. Holwell said he always makes sure to find out the exact locations of where the buoys will be used, and shows it to the youths on a map. Last winter the cohort deployed a buoy off the coast of Nain, and Holwell said it was great to see the pride on their faces.
“They can actually see that something they’re building will help save lives,” he said. “Once they know that, they take pride in building those SmartBUOYs. They know they’ll be sent up to Nunavut or wherever to help save lives.”
Evan Careen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram