By Daniel Nedecki, IBI Group
This post is part of a series covering ULI Toronto’s Electric Cities Spring 2017 Symposium which took place on April 24 and 25 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. ULI Toronto’s second city building symposium saw over 1,000 industry professionals gather to learn and engage on topics revolving around placemaking, mobility and technology.
Following the Spring Symposium’s opening keynote panel, Civic Action CEO Sevaun Palvetzian took the stage to moderate the second session of the morning, the titular Electric Cities panel. Participating in the panel were Cyndi Rottenberg-Walker, Partner, Urban Strategies Inc.; Leslie Woo, Chief Planning Officer, Metrolinx; and Mark Kindrachuk, President & Founder, Intermarket Real Estate Group.
Palvetzian began the session by recommending a book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. The thesis of this book was indeed the thesis to Palvetzian’s line of questioning which, simply stated, was as follows: large crowds of people are more intelligent than individuals in answering nearly all questions and addressing the most critical challenges of our time.
Technology itself was very superficially discussed during the conversation between Palvetzian and panelists and briefly touched upon AI, cloud computing, autonomous vehicles and big data. The panel concluded the brief discussion of these topics by assuming that these technologies will continue to increase in influence over the built environment. However, very little specifics were offered to substantiate this perspective. Rather than discussing how these technologies would dictate the future of cities in clearer detail, Palvetzian steered the conversation toward more familiar activist territory of politics and social dynamics. Questions of how transit could be racist, if Toronto really understands diversity, and if the “Tinder” model for public infrastructure could be a viable way of getting civic projects approved became the focus instead.
Amidst this technologically tangential line of questioning, four major threads of discussion emerged with respect to socio-political dynamics of cities today. First, the panelists probed the question of the “accidental city.” They considered how effective centralized planning is in addressing changes to the global political landscape. In this regard, the existential self-awareness needed to accurately explain the unforeseen phenomena of Trump and Brexit was dismissed in favor of a more nebulous emphasis on “democratic processes.” Second, the panelists discussed the problem of affordable housing in Toronto. The general consensus between the panelists in answering this issue was that societal progress must move together in all respects (built environment, social services, education, etc.) without a major emphasis on any single one. Third, the need for properly publicly funded social services, education and infrastructure was identified as the single greatest hindrance in urban progress.
Finally, a consensus emerged between the moderator and the panelists on climate change and a very serious call was made for public funding toward better city planning to help counter its effects. This included better flood-water mitigation and infrastructure. In the end, it was conceded that climate change was a great enough threat to warrant additional government funding for initiatives like sensors and early warning detectors for environmental threats.