JWR Articles: Commentary - CityAge: Toronto, 2017 (Featured speaker: John Tory) - November 30, 2017
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CityAge: Toronto, 2017

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Be bold, and how

For this edition of CityAge (“Build the Future” in Toronto), a couple of themes emerged from the first sessions: “Be bold” (i.e., “Go for it, even if everyone else says ‘no way’”) and “Let’s worry more about how to move our agenda, rather than getting bogged down in endless policies and opportunities-lost debates” reiterated by several speakers. None better than from the opening remarks of MaRS’ Vice President, Corporate Development and Partnerships, Karen Greve Young: “[we should be] creating the future we actually want.” That comment resting precariously on an unproven assumption that we all want the same future.

A further sub-theme of diversity and inclusion was also a frequent flyer in the “how we will get this right?” to-do list. Yet looking around the assembled delegates, there is still much to be done on the home front.

As usual, the sessions proved to be as lively as they were provocative.

Session 1 devoted itself to “Building the Urban Technologies of the Future.” Panelist Kathleen Kauth (MaRS’ Director of Partnerships, Advanced Energy Centre) had much to say about Clean Tech, increasingly affordable lithium batteries, Big Data (who really owns it?) and the human experience when dealing with the unknown: “We’ll figure it out as we go along.”

Ramtin Attar (Autodesk’s Head of Design and Social Impact) focussed on the digital divide (never assume the entire population is digitally equipped, much less savvy about usage), the importance of governance for overseeing systems (most especially preventing hackers: imagine auto-driven trucks or cars being controlled by terrorists!) and safety, the value of decentralizing Big Data from few servers to many platforms (what could go wrong?) while Barrie’s mayor, Jeff Lehman (also a director of Electra, a consortium of municipalities) advised the assemblage that in order to move the ball forward, “you have to start with your own culture” (politicians, staff and a majority of the citizenry are primarily interested in sharing or keeping their assets, data and innovations in silos).

Next up was Toronto Mayor, John Tory. His remarks were all about “how.” How to stay in the top-ten list of The Economist’s most liveable cities worldwide (currently No. 4). How to meet challenges through leadership: doing rather than just planning. He chose two examples: The just-launched King Street Project (putting transit and pedestrians ahead of cars in the heart of the city because, prior to this change, “King Street was not working for anyone.” The proposed Rail Deck Park which purports to provide Torontonians with a huge green space and cover up the unsightly rail corridor. “We’ve decided to do something bold,” he declared—simultaneously removing a perpetual eyesore and assuring The Economist’s bragging rights will remain. Both political and corporate poles are providing much of the fuel for innovation and action.

York University President Rhonda Lenton was next with a detailed description of her institution’s response to The Role of Inclusion in Building Smart Cities. “City building cannot be done in the absence of community,” she explained and went on to emphasize that her overarching goal was “preparing globally educated citizens.”

After the break, Claire Weisz, Founding Principal, W X Y architecture + urban design provided an enlightening tour of NYC Waterfront Case Studies where many aging industrial sites have been given new life by combining light industry with affordable housing; the object being both workable and affordable. “Cheaper rents to help inequality [going hand in hand with diversity in large urban centres] mix is good,” she said. Clearly another city builder in the “how” column.

Session 2: The Wealth of Cities, took an in-depth look at how cities might better utilize/leverage their existing assets.

Councillor Scott Davey (Kitchener) led off by explaining how the promise of light rail is already fuelling the construction of downtown towers, then praised the value of replacing street lamps with “smart” lamps in order to flow data (literally, as a resident’s water metre reading sent to the city via the street light could reveal a leaky toilet almost immediately) for analyses of all types. And as many others would agree, the key to this kingdom of innovation would be private (profit-driven) public (service-driven) partnerships.

Keeping watch over UBC’s actual kingdom of 1,000 acres, Aubrey Kelly (President & CEO, UBC Properties Trust) extolled the importance of upgrading/adding transit along with the bold notion of putting schools into high-rises where the public spaces would be paid for by the commercial/residential add-ons that shelter the areas of education.

From the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, CEO Brad Ferguson bemoaned his city’s two conference centres having no attached hotels, the danger of some public-private partnerships in the public’s mind (the new hockey arena) and, echoing Tory, the cry to “be bold” and bring/cajole disbelievers along with you.  With such obvious enthusiasm for change, the notion, above, of whose future are we building and inequality (will everyone benefit from innovation?) slipped back into play.

No stranger to these pages (cross-reference below), KPMG’s Stephen Beatty’s Islands of Good talk was based upon an extensive study (largely opinions of city managers around the globe: (citybenchmarkhome@kpmg.com), focussing once more on under-utilized assets (schools, libraries) and resource waste (e.g., 65% of drinking water never makes it to a tap), innovative partnerships (for the municipality: own less, develop more on someone else’s dime) and the growing e-commerce problem of “the last mile [in the delivery process].” Subtitling his presentation, No Neighbourhood Is an Island would not have been far off the mark.

Another healthy dose of “bold and how” became the core of Session 3: Building the City of the Future. Quite literally in this case, where 12 acres of Toronto’s waterfront have been earmarked to become a demonstration project of a smart city from top to bottom.

Leading this charge is Rohit Aggarwala, Head of Urban Systems, Sidewalk Labs. His company strives to “make urban life better through digital tech, ‘the neighbourhood of the future.’”

His co-panellist and, essentially, boss was Waterfront Toronto’ Vice President, Innovation, Sustainability and Prosperity, Kristina Verner.

But there won’t be any “fibre turning” ceremony soon. The goal over the next year is to develop a plan that will let residents in the undeveloped area live the dream of Beatty’s twentysomething son: “I want to walk to my life.” We will all be watching to learn if this bold evolves into how. JWR

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Featured speaker - John Tory
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