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Marveling at Toronto + Piloting the Future

Neal Peirce / Sep 20 2013

For Release Sunday, September 22, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceTORONTO – The heart of Canada’s largest city throbs with activity.

Along the Lake Ontario shoreline and inland, some 170 construction cranes, North America’s biggest assemblage, are busily expanding an already vast collection of skyscrapers. Many of the buildings glisten with the most tasteful multi-hued glass exteriors I’ve seen around the world.

The streets of the city center are buzzing too – with youthful crowds of multiple ethnic heritages (and dress), hurrying to work, shopping, partying by night.

There is concern that Canada’s economic bubble, with unsecured personal debt levels reminiscent of USA 2008, may burst. And Torontonians are worried about their physical future, after scorching summers and a wild July storm that dumped 4 inches of rain, engulfing roads, stranding trains and leaving close to 1 million people without power.

Still, there’s optimism and resilience – making Toronto the logical choice for the yearly “Meeting of the Minds” gathering, sponsored by the Urban Age Institute and spearheaded by imagineer Gordon Feller. This year’s event drew several hundred corporate and nonprofit strategists Sept. 9-11.

The venue, appropriately, was Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works, an abandoned brick factory transformed into a showcase for environmental restoration, cutting-edge green technologies and urban sustainability.

Plus, place matters. Thinking sanely about urban futures seems easier in Canada’s less heated and virulent (compared to the U.S.A.) political atmosphere.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne set the stage, insisting government needs to be active – investing in infrastructure, boosting promising business start-ups, promoting safe, walkable and bikable communities, working to end coal generating power – yet “understanding we’re facilitators, to bring people together, not to just do ourselves.”

A top success story? Wynne named Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District – a nonprofit created to connect science, entrepreneurs and government and that’s helped incubate 140 fresh ventures.

Instances of government-as-social-entrepreneur seem to abound. Former Mayor David Miller explained how Toronto cut its total energy use 6 percent, with significant greenhouse gas reduction, by insulating some 1,000 concrete slab apartment buildings. Since many of the structures were in low-income areas, the city trained residents to work on the insulation crews – and gain construction skills.

Another conference theme: Corporate skills can help develop technologies for the common good. A Toyota executive touted the potential benefit of automated driving (i.e., computer-controlled cars). Stanley Litow, president of the IBM International Foundation, reported how corporate staffers were using data and advanced analytics to help 100 cities – from Nairobi to Syracuse, Nanjing to Copenhagen – gird economically and improve basic services.

Today’s world teenagers – 1 billion of them – are growing up with digital literacy, Tim Campbell of the Urban Age Institute observed. They represent a prime global resource for city innovation and progress, authoring a significant share of today’s 15,000 new computer “apps” a week.

Dramatic breakthroughs are imperative, the “Minds” conferees heard, in a globe hurtling toward population heights (180,000 people moving into world cities every day) with expanding middle classes and massive new demands for food, energy and raw materials. Cities will have to become radically more efficient; technology will have to substitute in part for inefficient services everywhere, taming soaring demand for new brick and mortar schools, hospitals, offices and more.

The solution, Wim Elfrink of Cisco argued, is the “Internet of Everything” – IoE, in which sensors in billions of connected devices – cars, street lights, weather instruments, even monitors of body organs – permit radical new productivity and efficiencies. Some 13 billion devices are connected worldwide today – a figure Elfrink predicts will soar to 50 billion by 2020, and untold figures beyond.

By bringing together people, process, data and things, Cisco argues that IoE will matter in a big way for cities, delivering radical energy savings, improved education, access to better healthcare and more. An early example is the city of Rivas-Vaciamadrid, Spain, where the Mayor Jose Masa reports big benefits from a single communications platform linking the city’s call center, electricity, gas, water management and traffic light control in real time, “saving a large amount of money and CO2 emissions” while delivering city-wide free Internet service.

Toronto itself is making a first step toward IoE with an ultra-high band communications system for its waterfront area – an opening not just to easily tap into information (and two-way communications) covering attractions, weather and safety, but a potential model for the entire city. Mayor Dan Mathieson of Stratford, Ontario, a city already experimenting with advanced communications, sees IoE as an opening to meeting citizens’ expanding demands for improved services despite lower revenues.

There’s no doubt that IoE, today just in its infancy and opening a universe of opportunities, will also raise huge concerns about privacy. But it doesn’t necessarily mean Big Brother watching one, says Elfrink: It can facilitate the opposite – “citizens watching Big Brother.”  It may be the biggest look, wonder, wait and discover phenomenon of our time.

Neal Peirce’s e-mail is

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One Comment

  1. Michael Godfried
    Posted September 22, 2013 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Technology is a critical part of the future but I think it is important to become too enamored or dependent on state-of-the art technology to address challenges of massive urbanization especially when many of the world’s mega-cities will lack the capital to build such systems. Such systems are part of the pallette of solutions but at the extreme there can be a technophilism – technology for technologies sack.

    Also, tying all infrastructure into information platforms makes them extremely vulnerable to attack – already power plants and water treatment plants can be accessed through the internet. We need to keep in mind the trade-offs of this technology and not add complexity where it is not helpful to the intelligent functioning of our cities.