Looking back over her illustrious career is not something Patricia McCarney does often, in part due to her fervent working pace. She describes her journey as both “strategic, and serendipitous.”
McCarney is a Professor of Political Science and Director and Founder of the Global City Indicators Facility (GCIF) and the Global Cities Institute (GCI) at the University of Toronto. She is also the President and CEO of the World Council of City Data (WCCD), which is the host of the first international set of standards for urban metrics, known as ISO 37120. She has written seven books to date, covering topics such as cities and global governance, sustainability, climate change, education and local government in developing nations.
When asked about her advice to young professionals, McCarney emphasizes don’t let anything stop you. Early in the conversation, she jokes about taking her then eleven month old daughter Georgia (now a real estate professional and fellow ULI member) on a business trip to Asia. “It was a 12 hour flight, and the flight attendant put Georgia in a bassinet and attached it to the wall of the cabin, and thankfully she was quiet for the entire trip. Just before we landed in Bangkok, I took her out of the bassinet, and the other passengers applauded for such a well-behaved baby.” When Georgia was six and her son Ben was a baby, she took them with her to South Africa so that she could help the office of President Mandela write a National Urban Strategy for South Africa.
She admits the early years were difficult, but parenthood wasn’t going to slow her down. “You do the best you can and you’ll make mistakes but that shouldn’t hold you back. Nothing is perfect but it all fits,” explains McCarney. “My kids have a wealth of rich cultural experience and they value that exposure in retrospect. I also have a supportive partner that felt exactly the same way about my career, and that helped a lot.”
While working towards a Masters in City Planning at the University of Manitoba, one of McCarney’s professors, Mario Carvalho, picked up on her worldly interests and encouraged her to study international development at one of the six North American universities offering the course at the time. She followed his advice, and went to Boston to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “Again a professor took note and asked me if I’d like to move to Nairobi for a position with the United Nations to build a database on cities.” She jumped at the opportunity and returned to Boston afterwards to finish her Ph.D. Being at MIT led Patricia to positions with UN-Habitat, IRDC and eventually the World Bank. “Honestly, that first position was pivotal. I still employ skills I learned in Nairobi,” says McCarney. “When you’re young and opportunity knocks, when you don’t have children or mortgages, definitely take advantage.” Again, some things are strategic and others are serendipitous.
Part of her position with the World Bank required globally comparative city data. McCarney realized how difficult it was to come by accurate information. “Most cities weren’t even defining city limits in the same way, so we couldn’t measure population size accurately, never mind police officers per 100,000 or crime rates or emergency response times or anything really,” she says. A clearly defined set of city indicators was desperately needed to produce reliable data, so she set to work in establishing the GCIF.
“We took into account what cities were already measuring without enforcing arbitrary indicator priorities.” The World Bank and the GCIF collected data from nine pilot cities: out of the 1,100 indicators they brought to the table, only two were comparable. “We started building standardized definitions and methodologies but that was only the beginning.”
In 2012, Patricia and Helen Ng (now the Executive Vice President of the WCCD) went to the International Organisation for Standardization (ISO) in Geneva with 255 cities on board reporting 75 indicators. “We built an incredible network of cities and could now have a legitimate conversation regarding city services and quality of life through Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the Americas from the data collected. We posed the question to ISO: could this become an ISO standard? The immediate answer was ‘probably not.’ But a few months later, the ISO came back to us.” As it turned out, Japan and France were also interested in developing ISO Standards for cities. “TC 268 was then created, and we went through what’s called a Living Lab, a kind of fast-track to building an ISO standard.”
Though it usually takes six years to build an ISO Standard, two years later, ISO 37120 was published and officially launched at the Global Cities Summit, held here in Toronto on May 15, 2014. The fast track involved ballots going out internationally to many countries and stakeholders with hundreds of comments coming in about the indicators which they then had dispositioned at ISO meetings worldwide. “It was not easy but we got it.” Once the data is certified, cities become part of a global registry and data becomes available through the open data portal. “We’re now building the front end of the portal so that citizens or lawyers, planners or real estate developers can log in and look at city data in comparative frameworks. Land density, transportation, emergency response, finance, and so on, it’s a huge resource.” This information also helps respond to a lot of the ranking systems that lack credible data.
Under ISO, cities were surprisingly cooperative and wanting to report information for certification. It has been incredibly organic and self-propelled. “I know you’re interested in leadership,” Patricia jokes, “but it’s all about perseverance. Helen and I really persevered.” Her advice to younger generations? “Step up,” says Patricia. “It’s important to develop confidence early on, and demonstrate your strengths to your boss. Take initiative where you know you’re capable.” According to McCarney, managers are usually so busy; they rarely have the time to mentor junior staff. “They simply don’t have time. Working nights, weekends, attending to endless emails – in the end, if you need to find someone to mentor you, step up and say here I am.” One example she cites is of a young statistics intern who recommended a specific program to help organize data, and ended up helping translate a PowerPoint and going with her to Shanghai to attend a United Nations World Cities Summit “He jumped right in at those meetings in Shanghai and he’s only 22.”
“When younger staff members stand up, give their informed opinion and think about things their bosses haven’t considered, it resonates,” explains McCarney. “It’s a great help and demonstrates ability that may have been missed otherwise.” Also, Patricia points out, as a woman, it is specifically important to develop confidence early on because you need to have the ability to stand up for yourself or ask a question if something is amiss. “It may be uncomfortable, even gut-wrenching at the time, but there are some battles you need to fight. If you know it’s right, take it on. Be conscious and be aware and hold your ground.”