JWR Articles: Commentary - CityAge: The Modern Metropolis (Featured speaker: Rich Michos) - May 23, 2013
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CityAge: The Modern Metropolis

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A Tale of Two Cities II

CityAge: The Modern Metropolis, Toronto edition, began—quite appropriately—with a presentation by Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner, City of Toronto.

As Master of Ceremonies, David Crombie, succinctly summed up her remarks by observing that they “set the table” for Session 1: “The Modern Metropolis: New approaches to the urban century.”

Keesmaat’s comments about the perennial issues of proximity to work, housing, transit and infrastructure were certainly nothing new. But would any real, tangible solutions emerge over the course of the two-day discussions? With Mayor-council squabbles garnering more attention/coverage than the very real challenges facing Canada’s largest, most diverse city, it appeared unlikely that the “earth would move” anytime soon. And then the saturation of the media landscape on day two by the allegation (apparently caught in crystal clear iPhone video) that Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, fuels his acerbic tongue with a well-filled crack pipe made that point like never before.

At first, the all-white panel chaired by Sheldon Levy, (Chairman and Vice-Chancellor, Ryerson University) seemed destined to continue the Canadian tradition of spending more time defining (or more accurately, redefining) the well-known problems that are further exacerbated by the erosion of the middle class to the point that (according to panelist Bryan Tuckey, President and CEO, Building Industry and Land Development Association) low and very low income households far outnumber the “haves”; two-thirds of those (we soon learned from the Toronto Community Foundation) are visible minorities.

It fell to the sole woman and ever-ready firebrand, Mary Rowe (a former Torontonian—as is your faithful reporter—currently Managing Director, Municipal Art Society of New York) to push the action agenda forward. “You [all those with an interest or personal stake in the city’s future] know what to do—but we are stuck [the political will to implement solutions is largely absent].”

The remainder of the session (with many thoughtful observations by John Cruickshank, Publisher, The Toronto Star) vigorously described two Torontos (one profoundly needy; the other soaring), worlds apart.

Spot on was the notion that—like corporations with more money than imagination—certain governments choose to curry favour with the electorate (in the same manner that cash-rich public companies like to reward their shareholders through increased dividends) by offering tax cuts rather than investing in the remedies that will have more impact on the collective citizenry than just those (minority in recent times) who vote (the double irony of disenfranchisement is richer than the 1% whose “dead money” serves no useful purpose other than account envy).

Micro-solutions such as jitneys in poorly served neighbourhoods (transit) to less-dense housing were offered, but the real—sadly, in more ways than one—takeaway was that the biggest challenge on the road ahead is finding, electing or hiring leaders who are truly able to work with others and not afraid of making difficult (not pre-poll approved) decisions. How hard can that be?

The vast power of first mining then learning from Big Data was at the core of Rich Michos’ (Global Vice President, Smarter Cities, IBM) turn at the podium. His metaphor of “injured” cities getting back up off the mat, like a prize fighter, seemed apt enough, with many illustrations as to the savings possible once current silos of information are properly deciphered, merged, stored and analyzed. His motto, “Think long, act short,” spoke again to the danger of systemic inertia. However, the quality/completeness of the data was not discussed nor the actual cost versus savings of the “Smarter City” initiatives. More data is required to fully measure the effectiveness of this approach.

From the Toronto Community Foundation, President and CEO, Rahul Bhardwaj, explained in great detail this year’s “Toronto Vital Signs” report. His summation in a mini sound bite” “Toronto: Not too bad.”

While its title (“Cloud Cities: How the data age is shaping our urban future”) never really got off the ground until the Q&A (shameless promoting by the representative of WZMH Architects was very much in tune with Jian Ghomeshi’s capsule history of Q a day earlier at Canada 3.0).

An equally self-interested delegate raised the thorny issue of energy consumption (wireless networks, we were told, currently account for 2% of the world’s energy requirements: what happens if the projection of 50 billion devices by 2020 comes true?) and health concerns (the closer people live to cell towers, we were told, the greater their risk for the side effects of over exposure to radiation).

Another simply asked, “Who will regulate?” With the fresh example of millions stolen by hacking data and turning those personal data fields into bank cards, raising the credit limits and draining accounts still in consciousness, the concern was absolutely genuine.

Finally, the practice of purposely not capturing information (e.g., the discussion prior to motions at Toronto City Council meetings) provided evidence of the flip-side of Big Data: Selected Data (or we only keep the data we like).

None of these questions were substantively resolved by the panel (nor was the promise of the session ever realized), but the notion that conspiracy shouldn’t be confused with incompetence provided the best knowing-laugh thus far.

Then, like the proverbial breath of fresh air, Jay Mezher (National Director, Virtual Design & Construction, Parsons Brinckerhoff) took the stage. For twenty minutes, he delighted and amazed the crowd with a demonstration of how Big Data and 3-D can come together and provide planning tools (the visuals were nothing short of the level of James Cameron with the sound turned off) that even politicians could understand (no need to have pretended to have read the backgrounders and staff reports).

Best of show was the simulation of what would have happened to Seattle’s seawall and environs if the 2001 Nisqually earthquake had rumbled on for 60 seconds. Runner-up was the demonstration of the PTV VISSIM microscopic, multi-modal traffic flow simulation—at last, a compelling use for some of the technology that goes into gaming!

If only such a fact-based model had been available to New Orleans city planners decades ago, then perhaps Katrina might have produced far less misery and suffering.

Using 21st century technology as a predictor of outcomes and model for the results of development (from sun/shadow observations to carbon monoxide emissions), cities might actually become “Smarter” than the too often head-in-the-sand politicians that purport to lead them. JWR

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Featured speaker - Rich Michos
Host - David Crombie
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City of Toronto CityAge
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