Marveling at Toronto and Piloting the Future

September 21, 2013

By Neal Peirce

TORONTO -- The heart of Canada's largest city throbs with activity.

Along Lake Ontario and inland, more than 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 multihued glass exteriors I've seen around the world.

And 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 the United States in 2008, may burst. And Torontonians are worried about their physical future in the wake of scorching summers and a wild July storm that dumped four 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, which 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 (compared to the U.S.) heated and virulent political atmosphere.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne set the stage, insisting government needs to be active -- investing in infrastructure, boosting promising business startups, promoting safe, walkable and bikeable communities, working to end coal generating power -- yet all the while "understanding we're facilitators, to bring people together, not to just do ourselves."

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

And instances of government as social entrepreneur seem to abound. Former Mayor David Miller explained how Toronto was able to cut its total energy use 6 percent, with significant greenhouse gas reduction, by insulating about 1,000 concrete slab apartment buildings. But 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.

The world's 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 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. About 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 health care 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 citywide 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 on-tap 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, in 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 email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group