JWR Articles: Commentary - CityAge 2015 - Build the Future: Toronto (Featured speaker: John Tory) - October 12, 2015

CityAge 2015 - Build the Future: Toronto

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Whose future shall we build? – Part 2

To discuss just how to go about building a supercluster, the first session of the CityAge conference was convened. At first, it seemed almost insulting to have this group of experts chaired by an American (Rick Cole, former municipal politician and currently City Manager, City of Santa Monica), but it became absolutely appropriate to have a “disrupter” lead the fray, beginning with his honest statement that “L.A. has the strongest, but perhaps not the best, brand in the world.”

Kevin Lynch returned to the stage as panelist and, after another echo of the tarnishing effect of Rob Ford’s mayoralty on Toronto’s brand, opined that we have all of the ingredients to create a supercluster but lack the recipe.

For his opening remarks, Iain Klugman, CEO, Communitech, suggested that “We need to tell our story [to the rest of the world]” to the point of boasting, rather than being reluctant to strut our abilities and achievements. “Canadians are nice [in reference to how much of the world views us] except when we step on the ice.” (Toronto’s opening night loss to the Habs and the playoff run of Blue Jays gave many speakers the chance to add humour and a wee bit of pride into the mix.)

As she alluded to earlier, Ilse Treurnicht emphasized the importance of developing intentional connection between the various governments, NGOs and industry rather than the current hap hazard approach.

Finally, dual citizen (Ireland/Canada) Tim McTiernan, President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, in his first salvo urged everyone to develop a “common sense of vision and identity” just as his homeland did several years back to the point where, now, Ireland regularly outranks Canada in various metrics related to innovation and world trade. Simply put: “We need to aspire higher,” he said.

As the conversation continued, Cole spoke infrequently but made several salient points:

“The Internet doesn’t have a headquarters.” “Australia embraced Asia” (on its impressive reincarnation from a faraway colony to a force to be reckoned with in Asia). “Everyone talks about inclusiveness¾except at election time” (an obvious reference to the niqab issue swirling about our national campaign).  But perhaps the comment most at odds with entire discussion by all speakers up to now had to do with collaboration versus competition when he stated uncategorically that the ongoing rivalry between San Francisco and Los Angeles “works.”

That comment could turn out to be a real game changer as the Toronto-Region corridor struggles to move from mighty concept to cohesive reality. With so many players, interests, ambitions and egos at stake, it is difficult to imagine how a sizeable land mass filled with 8 million people of equally varying aspirations and goals could move as one and compete head on with Silicon Valley et cetera.

Simon Galpin (Director-General, Invest Hong Kong), in his presentation, was the epitome of pragmatism. The “small” city (in terms of start-up activity) has craftily used its rich financial expertise and proximity to Pearl River Delta (one of China’s major manufacturing centres) to attract an ever-growing number of “little” guys who¾unlike many other innovation centres¾can bring products to market in a remarkably quick four months’ time. That’s a huge advantage in this era of “hope we can get our product out before someone else beats us to it.”

Then Stephen Beatty, Global Head of KPMG’s Cities Business, happily threw another spanner into the future works by singing Toronto’s praises, most especially the courage of past generations to boldly go about doing what needed to be done, largely in terms of infrastructure (citing the Gardiner Expressway as just one example).

He wisely coupled that statement of fact with the present-day caution that for things “that need to be done” (er, hello there transportation issues of all stripes), consensus needs to be built “one word at time.” This is especially true in the era of social media where individuals have a far greater voice than ever before: it’s no longer up to the “boss” (government or industry) to dictate what is in the best interests of the populace. On the surface this sounds like democracy at its best, but without every “voice” having extensive knowledge of the daunting issues facing urban centres, a kind of infrastructure paralysis may make things worse rather than better. Look no further than the seemingly endless debate surrounding Toronto’s subway/LRT plans.

Not surprisingly, Beatty also advocated for the privatization of huge government assets as a means to funding the changes necessary to move the “corridor” into the 21st century. And, of course, KPMG would be more than happy to assist that process.

Then it wasn’t too much later that this well-scripted (in terms of topic flow) conference was ready to hear from Toronto Mayor John Tory for his views on the road ahead to growth and prosperity.

He began with an echo from earlier in the morning: “We want to be in first place.” (Once again a terrifically timed comment as the Blue Jays were just hours away from their first post-season play in 22 years.)

Tory’s prescription focused on three broad problems facing virtually everyone:

  • Inadequate transport (the better the transportation system, the greater the range of opportunity, especially for the poorest citizens).
  • Successfully creating the ideal environment for innovation and investment.
  • Ensuring opportunity for everyone¾especially the underemployed (but due to immigration policies¾notably accreditation¾a lot of human capital is being squandered to the detriment of all).

He concluded by, essentially, repeating the notion from previous speakers that “We have the foundations” (earlier referred to as ingredients), but don’t yet have the recipe.

Clearly master chefs of the highest order will be needed if Canada is to keep pace much less move past other supercluster-oriented countries.

Although climate change was mentioned a few times¾mostly as an area where Canada could step up and become a world leader (and then sell its related solutions to other countries)¾there was nary a caution heard that the push for ever-increasing growth across virtually every economic sector could well be the downfall of the planet if the results of that growth aren’t carefully managed and monitored.

If the there is no clean air to breathe or water to drink or grow crops, who will we have to blame? Let’s all hope we don’t end up with a recipe for disaster.

Hopefully, the ensuing session, “Building a Global Supercluster,” would offer a roadmap to success. JWR

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Featured speaker - John Tory
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