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Outside the box

September 18, 2013
David Oswald

A coffee date with the United Nations was once a dream of David Oswald’s. So the Kootenay-born and Victoria-raised environmentalist put his mind to making that happen.

Drawing on a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science from Royal Roads, engineering studies and multimedia skills honed at a creative studio in Vancouver, Oswald decided to build a company around his interests. The result was Design + Environment (DE), a Montreal-based ‘eco-consultancy’ that solves problems using environmental science and design principles.

With projects ranging from creating content for museums, science centres and world expos to engineering environmental management systems for non-government organizations and international energy companies, Oswald’s consultancy work is varied.

“It’s definitely the product of a lot of diverse and different but related experiences,” Oswald says. “I wanted to find a place where I could combine design, communication and environmental issues. The best way I could find to do that was starting my own company.”

Oswald took it slow, working with the Cen­tre for Enter­prise and Inno­va­tion of Mon­treal in 2005 to develop the idea and learn business basics. He also studied for a master’s at McGill University, using remote sensing satellites to examine Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Balancing graduate studies with a fledgling business was tough.

“The first couple of years, I did some work but it wasn’t a landslide,’” Oswald says. “At the time, environmental issues weren’t en vogue. It was before Al Gore’s movie and the environment was still very much a side issue.”

But persistence paid off. In 2012, Design and Environment landed a huge contract: designing the Rio Con­ven­tions Pavil­ion at the Rio+20 con­fer­ence in Brazil. Oswald’s company oversaw 3D modelling and concept design for the project, full architectural drawings and environmental analysis, as well as creating an interactive envi­ron­men­tal graph­ics display. The pavilion was a hit, attracting world leaders and celebrities such as actor Edward Norton.

“There is a demand for this knowledge right now,” Oswald says. “Five years ago, it was a dream of mine to have the UN as our client. Now we work with multiple organizations. I had a coffee meeting with someone from the UN yesterday. I was lucky but at the same time I created that luck.”

The consultancy, which employs up to 15 people depending on projects on the go, continues to evolve. This year, DE won a contract from the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre to develop an environmental and atmospheric data management system for the region, a project funded by the Inter-American Development Bank. And DE has branched out into technology, developing spectroscopy equipment with other Canadian businesses for the energy sector.

Oswald says his education at Royal Roads equipped him with skills to tackle projects such as the one underway in the Caribbean. The foundation of Oswald’s business – sustainable development, leadership, entrepreneurship and conflict resolution – are based on RRU’s four pillars of corporate social responsibility.

“I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to go to Royal Roads. It was a place I could put a lot of my interests together with a degree that made sense of my career objectives,” Oswald says. “Not only did we learn about science, we went out and did it. Literally, skills I learned at Royal Roads, I’m using today.”

Royal Roads Prof. Tony Boydell, from the School of Environment and Sustainability, has kept in touch with his former student over the past decade.

“David was one of the outstanding students in his year, a natural leader. He was very thoughtful, always asking questions,” Boydell says. “He’s very good at identifying opportunities and doing something interesting with them. What he’s done is an example to other students.”

For Oswald, who built a wind-powered generator when he was 10 and has spent his life dabbling in robotics and computers, thinking outside the box will be the key to solving big environmental issues.

“Ever since I was a kid I have been creating stuff,” he says. “If there’s anything out there right now that requires a huge amount of creativity, it’s trying to figure out how we are going to live on this planet with a lot of people while maintaining the same standard of living or an even higher one.”