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Global Cities experts speak - but will Toronto listen? Hume

Delegates at Toronto conference learn how big data will lead to “new science of city building.”
May 16, 2014
By Christopher Hume

Like any city, Toronto can always use a fresh set of eyes. With the first Global Cities Summit now in session downtown at the Sheraton Centre, the eyes aren’t only fresh, there are many of them.

Delegates from China, Japan, Europe, the Middle East, North and South America have gathered here to learn about efforts to standardize urban data and introduce an international measuring system that allows accurate rating of cities.

Led by the University of Toronto Global Cities Indicators Facility, that system has now been certified by ISO (the International Organization for Standardization). Everyone from Toronto municipal officials, including city manager Joe Pennachetti, to the mayor of Mecca, Osama Fadli Al-Bar, extolled the virtues of comparing apples with apples, not oranges.

For Patricia McCarney, director and driving force of the Global City Indicators Facility, the conference is the climax of more than five years of effort. With ISO on board, the organization has achieved new relevance. Indeed, its achievements will radically change how we think about city planning and urban revitalization.

McCarney looks forward to “a new science of city building, one based on the evidence of data.”
Though answers may not always be obvious, the problems are. Around the world, cities face one overwhelming issue: none can keep enough of the taxes they raise to provide the services demanded by residents. Toronto is a perfect example. The city, the richest in Canada, exists in a state of impoverishment because it keeps less than 10 per cent of taxes collected from Torontonians. The rest goes to Ottawa and Queen’s Park.

At the same time, participants were adamant that cities are the economic engines that drive nations. Central governments that neglect cities - as do the Stephen Harper Conservatives - do so at their own peril.

As the planet becomes increasingly urban - more than half of humanity now lives in cities - the pressure to understand the urban environment and get it right is huge.

Though no one questions the need for facts and figures, you can’t help but wonder just how much truth we can handle. Again, Toronto is a perfect example: Rob Ford’s election in 2010 was a clear signal that voters choose their leaders for reasons other than being smart and well-informed.

And like Ford, many Torontonians would take some of the speakers’ ideas - especially about the car - as a personal attack. Consider the words of Barcelona’s chief architect, Vicente Guallart:

“The concept of owning a car is obsolete,” he declared, “but not the concept of transportation. For North American cities, the problem is that the model is based on cars. They are a 20th-century technology. Cities begin where highways end. Raised highways in cities are Third World now. Smart cities are taking them down. Today young people are starting to drive less. They take the bus instead. That’s why buses have to be like limousines.”

Anyone trying to get elected on a platform like that in Toronto would be laughed out of the campaign, regardless what the data say.

“Smart technologies allow us to see what we’re doing,” said Martin Powell of Siemens’ London office.
But what happens when people don’t want to look?

“Cities need strong leaders to make this work,” McCarney argued. “Cities need to be smart, agile and nimble, and national governments need to play a role. We have to get it right at the street level and the global.

“How can the internet of cities be better connected? Data, big data, as we’re building it at GCIF, are just now beginning to be tapped. It will help move prosperity ahead and provide greater transparency.”

However, as Powell also observed, “You can’t have a smart city with a stupid mayor.”

The conference continues Friday.