With the continuous move of the global population into urban centres (greater than 50% now and steadily rising worldwide) many are referring to our present era as the City Age. That notion has spawned an organization dedicated to examining related issues facing the majority of us: “CityAge is a platform for dialogue, designed to amplify new ideas in business, government and society.” Having completed two previous conferences in Vancouver (The Vancouver Cities summit in February and the Data Effect in June) the fledgling organization has set up shop in the MaRS Discovery District for “The Innovation City.”
During the course of two jam-packed days, over five-dozen speakers from Canada and the U.S. have been assembled to discuss the consequences of the seemingly unstoppable metropolitan migration and offer prescriptions, remedies and wishful thinking on such urban concerns as infrastructure, transportation, digitization, start-up initiatives, investment, culture, environment and research. A tall order indeed, but even the fact that this sort of conversation is taking place already speaks well to dealing with the challenges that lie ahead everywhere around the planet.
It seemed entirely appropriate that the conference kicked off with David Crombie (Former Mayor, City of Toronto) who, along with CivicAction’s Mitzie Hunter on Day 2, ably fulfilled the MC duties. The ever-affable Crombie reminded everyone just how quickly urbanization was taking over the agenda of most countries, how digital infrastructure was no longer a nice-to-have but vital tool in “keeping the trains running on time” (and the water mains from bursting on their own disintegrating schedule). “New means to serve old ends” is an apt 21st century mantra but the slogan’s overarching goal, in Crombie’s view, was for it to become the “basis for social peace.” Several times during the first-day sessions the deadly weekend violence at a community banquet was referenced as a chilling example of what can happen when the gap—financial, employment, societal—becomes too wide. The TTC’s (Toronto Transit Commission) subway warning “mind the gap” was deftly reworded to “mind that gap [ignore it at your peril],” gave the assemblage a stark example as to why the issues raised and conclusions reached go so far beyond the financial and political implications which seem to drive everything urban these days.
That said, I was also astonished that a forum of this subject matter and magnitude wasn’t opened by Toronto’s current mayor: What else could be more important than sharing his support for the agenda where every item was or ought to be part of his own.
Not surprisingly, MaRS’s (itself an innovation hub in the heart of downtown Toronto) CEO Ilse Treurnicht’s rallying call during her welcoming remarks was to “unleash our entrepreneurs” to creatively find innovative products, services and solutions as the density of so many downtown cores increases exponentially.
The morning keynote presentation came courtesy of one of the sponsors’ senior employees. Guru Banavar (Global Chief Technology Officer for the Public Sector, IBM) divided his remarks into naturally promoting his firm’s impressive work in the field of digital infrastructure and giving ample evidence as to how Rio de Janeiro has used it in preparation for hosting the World Cup (2014) and the Summer Olympics (2016). The City Operating Centre brings together thirty departments under one roof to monitor the health, safety and wellbeing of the vibrant metropolis 24/7. As is almost always the case, the impetus for this initiative came from a galvanizing event: the deadly impact of the 2010 mudslides. Seventy operators monitor “Latin America’s biggest screen,” fed by real-time images from 400 cameras. State-of-the-art weather radar can predict storm paths 48 hours in advance (very much at one with the notion of looking to the future raised at this year’s NAB Show by Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics fame, cross-reference below). Curiously for a computer/communications giant like IBM, some of the PowerPoint slides were poorly constructed and the translation subtitles of the accompanying video were inadvertently cropped off below the screen.
The day’s first session more than set the tone for the day, it explained in large measure why needed change seems so slow to come (beyond human calamity driving the call to action as in Brazil, or spending our way out of manmade recessions with fickle, spotty stimulus programs for infrastructure). Chaired by Treurnicht, “Catalyst Cities: Leaders of the New Economy” boasted a readily opinionated panel consisting of two former Canadian politicians (Gordon Campbell, now High Commissioner of Canada to the UK and Sandra Pupatello, currently director of Business Development and Global Markets, PwC), an American civil servant (Seth Pinsky, President, New York City Economic Development Corporation) and a German artistic administrator (Luminato’s recently hired artistic director, Jorn Weisbrodt). It came as no shock at all for those who understand the artistic temperament that the sparks only began to fly when Weisbrodt finally got his oar in.
Following a thoughtful explanation of Mayor Bloomberg’s three ingredients to improve urban livability (infrastructure, regulation—notably the tax system/structure—as well as quality of life) and in response to Treurnicht’s question about the role of the arts, Weisbrodt took no prisoners as he decried the shift in NYC from being the centre of artistic production to the “centre of the art market.” In his view, a thriving arts community is fuelled by one main commodity: cheap or empty spaces to hone their skills and create the next masterpiece as used to be the case decades ago (think Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, even Jobriath, cross-reference below). Had it not been for the intervention of Pupatello, the argument about “where have all the artists gone” (Weisbrodt positively scoffed when Pinsky held up DUMBO—Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass—as the current hub of creativity and excellence; for him, boarded-up Detroit will be the next great incubator) would have consumed the entire morning. It was great to experience the passionate discourse but also the perfect example of how difficult it is for powerful bureaucrats to be influenced by a-political voices.
People-centric Campbell drew on his public office experience, warning all present about how maintaining the status quo and rampant institutional inertia are stifling the innovative city. (That sentiment would be strongly echoed by talk-show host John Tory as he next chaired “The Global Metropolis: Connecting New Infrastructure and People.”) Pupatello, shamelessly plugging her employer at every opportunity, extolled the virtues of hiring third-party companies to help cities work with the private sector for change while also bemoaning the “ridiculous process” where inordinate lengths of red tape have strangled projects and stifled productivity. Both former politicians wondering just how long, as one example, environmental assessments ought to take.
By the end of the session, including questions from the floor, there seemed to be consensus that the biggest obstacle facing the majority of cities was the absence of inspired leadership. This issue was seldom far from the surface as subsequent panels and speakers grappled with the difficulty of making coherent and cohesive long-term plans (some going out as far as 25 years) when the election cycle was generally four. In many ways, China’s authoritarian regime was quietly envied: at least projects went forward, contributing enormously to its exponential GDP growth and alarming spike in pollution (it has been estimated that 50% of the water table of Asia’s powerhouse is unfit for human consumption).
The afternoon’s look at the “Digital Metropolis” made it abundantly clear that Canada continues to lose ground in the hugely important digital infrastructure and Big Data world. I-Canada’s chair, Bill Hutchison, after putting down Metrolink’s Presto—one-pay transit card—as ten years behind Hong Kong, wanted Canada to move away from a “gravel” connectivity highway to asphalt and suggested an organization be established immediately to put Canada back at the head of the pack. But isn’t that precisely what the Canadian Digital Media Network and its annual Canada 3.0 conferences, building towards the “moonshot” (“Anyone can do anything online.”) by 2017.(cross-reference below). CDMN was also missing in the list of participants, demonstrating once more how the silo effect can produce so much unnecessary duplication.
After columnist Marcus Gee tried and failed to get a measure of straight talk from the mayors of Kitchener (Brenda Halloran) and Waterloo (Carl Zehr) about the impact and harm done to the image of Canada’s “Silicon Valley” by the continuing meltdown of RIM, the ensuing panel dug much deeper into Canada’s startup initiatives (as the conference progressed, the global nature of its topic seldom led the discussion; Canada and most particularly the Greater Toronto Area dominated, taking the relevance to other cities down a few notches).
Perhaps the saddest, if entirely realistic, point was made by Mark MacLeod (Partner, Real Ventures): “[Venture Capitalists] don’t care about your ideas, but will invest in clearly demonstrated opportunities…VCs are mainly interested in the exit [strategy].” That sentiment is similar to the old adage that banks will lend you money so long as you can prove you don’t need it. What’s a first-time entrepreneur to do?
Day 1 asked as many questions as it attempted to answer. Aside from the artistic dust-up in the opening session, the remainder of the day felt, well, so very Canadian. Do we have the kahunas to drive the changes required to grow and prosper in the City Age? We’ll see what Day 2 brings. JWR