Tag Archives: Alexander Aylett

Geothink Award Winner’s Research Brings Focus to City of Kelowna’s Homelessness Plan and Services to Those in Need

The iSearch Kelowna website is designed to assist individuals looking for low-income rentals, supportive housing or emergency shelters in the City of Kelowna.

By Drew Bush

One of the major challenge faced by anyone who finds themselves homeless involves finding shelter at places operated by a multitude of religious, goverment and nonprofit organizations. Thanks to the doctoral work of one Geothink student, that task just became a bit easier for those struggling with it in the City of Kelowna.

Shelley Cook, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC)-Okanagan, has worked with Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, an associate professor at UBC-Okanagan’s Department of Community, Culture and Global Studies, to design iSearch Kelowna. Via the app and website, individuals seeking low-income rentals, emergency shelter and drop-in services are able to search for live, user-specific information about resource availability within the city of Kelowna.

Shelley Cook, a University of British Columbia-Okanagan Ph.D. Candidate, developed the iSearch Kelowna site for her dissertation work.

“As we’ve moved out of phase one of our project, its morphing into another phase as it’s getting picked up as an important tool to inform this homelessness strategy, and people are running with it,” Cook said. In fact, this past summer the City of Kelowna decided to make iSearch Kelowna a central part of their strategy on homelessness. This highlighted Cook’s developing collaboration with the city on a project already supported by a team of reseachers, funders and partner organizations.

“It’s what we anticipated as what could happen and it’s lined up that way,” Cook said. “We’re maximising the benefit of the work that we’ve done, which is fantastic. It’s really in a strange way in its infancy, in terms of where it’s going to end up going, because it keeps evolving. So that’s been fantastic also.”

Cook’s work was recently recognized through Geothink’s first first Dr. Alexander Aylett Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation (La Bourse Dr. Alex Aylett en Durabilité Urbaine et Innovation). The award was established in Aylett’s memory to provide vital support to graduate students sharing Aylett’s passion for, and commitment to, sustainable urban development.

Early feedback on iSearch Kelowna indicates that it is already providing users with a sense of ownership and advocacy over their own well-being and simplifying access to shelter information.

“It’s really about promoting empowerment, a greater sense of fairness and equity on the distribution of resources,” Cook said. “What we’ve done in terms of evaluation is directly talk to people who were formerly homeless or struggling with issues of maintaining adequate safe housing for themselves. That’s the one big thing they’ve talked about. And there’s lots of different elements around the interface that make it really usable and accessible.”

Speaking with Geothink during the Summer 2017 Summer Institute, Corbett added that issues of social and spatial justice motivate the research he and Cook have undertaken.

“There’s I think 84 different organizations that work on social justice related issues in and around the City of Kelowna,” Corbett said. “Which is kind of shocking because the population of Kelowna is only 185,000 people. So the fact that you’ve got 84 different organizations working is indicative of how serious the problem really is.”

He noted that the city and funding organizations for these services had started to notice that each individual service providers was acting in isolation. As a result, there was no centralized place to find specific services across the city such as a hot meal or housing if you are over 55-years-old.

The initial tool Corbett envisioned was going to be aimed at service-providers using real-time data to help coordinate where to send homeless people for specific services. That evolved as Corbett and Cook began discussing the project with the City of Kelowna. It now includes portals for a variety of different types of users—including the homeless themselves.

“For us, it’s been a whole set of reasonable technical challenges,” Corbett added. “But we’ve also been dealing obiviously with this very, very important social question.”

There are also endless applications for how the open data collected as a part of the project can make services more accessible and comprehensive for those in need. One worry has always been how to make what is a digital application accessible to a population that might not always have internet access.

“The main branch of the Kelowna library, a main point around Kelowna’s homeless community, has a dedicated monitor station during opening hours, is accessible for people to be able to search,” Cook said. “So it’s really about promoting service equity, and a greater sense of fairness and equity around the distribution of resources.”

“They now possess the knowledge,” she added of the homeless people using the site. “And what we know is they didn’t have the knowledge of all of [the city’s services]. So what that does is—the creating these forms of open data—opens up services to people and creates a more level playing field. Which is an incredibly powerful use of tools like this and was one thing that we weren’t necessarily anticipating.”

In the future, Cook plans to include more types of homeless services in the database and expand the site and offerings to other cities that have already expressed an interest in it.

“The final piece is an awareness raising and an ongoing partnership,” Cook said. “We’re doing presentations where communities have an interest in British Columbia and Alberta at this point. We can be of assistance in helping them develop a similar process and mentoring in that way.”

For Corbett and Cook, this means getting the project into the hands of city officials where it will live and exist for the community in perpetuity.

“So from the perspective of urban sustainability, we’re seeing municipalities, more so than in the past, getting involved with complex social issues like homelessness, and taking a lead role around these things,” Cook said. “Having a technological backbone that can help function not only to generate important information but to help people come together under a collective virtual umbrella. That’s a very powerful way to maximise and sustain existing community resources, and find innovative ways to create linkages and partnerships through tools and technology like iSearch Kelowna.”

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If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Geothink Student Shelley Cook Awarded Dr. Alexander Aylett Graduate Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation for Her Work Empowering Homeless Populations

Shelley Cook, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC)-Okanagan, will be the recipient of Geothink’s first Dr. Alexander Aylett Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation (La Bourse Dr. Alex Aylett en Durabilité Urbaine et Innovation).

By Sam Lumley

Shelley Cook, a University of British Columbia-Okanagan Ph.D. Candidate and the first Geothink Dr. Alexander Aylett scholarship recipient.

Shelley Cook, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC)-Okanagan, will be the recipient of Geothink’s first Dr. Alexander Aylett Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation (La Bourse Dr. Alex Aylett en Durabilité Urbaine et Innovation). Her project empowers homeless populations in the city of Kelowna by building new connections with homeless service providers such as community housing organizations.

“I think It’s hard for me to articulate how much it means to me,” Cook said of this honour. “I’m utterly blown away by the privilege.”

Cook’s research was recognized because it closely aligns with the late Dr. Aylett’s vision for urban sustainability. His legacy for creative and durable solutions to social justice issues in cities lives on in Cook’s work. Dr. Aylett passed away on July 23, 2016 from cancer leaving behind a rich legacy of research into how cities can provide solutions on topics such as climate change and social justice using digital technology and open data.

Geothink’s Dr. Alexander Aylett Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation was established in his memory, to provide vital support to graduate students sharing Aylett’s passion for, and commitment to, sustainable urban development.

“I think after spending my entire career working with extremely marginalized populations, I think it’s difficult work,” Cook said. “And it’s work that I’ve seen over the years—you know, people working with the most vulnerable in society—it’s work that’s often not acknowledged. So I think, for me, I’m utterly blown away by the privilege and the fact that it is for work that is helping people who are the most vulnerable in the community. And I just feel incredibly honored in that respect.”

The award recognizes exceptional research contributing to the field of urban sustainability, and represents one way in which Dr. Aylett’s work is continuing to generate innovative, far-reaching impacts.

“Alex was an exceptional person and his presence seems to continue to surround those who knew and loved him,” Richard Aylett, his father, said. “And so, it is important that an award in his name goes to a project of value.”

Alex’ family is equally honoured to award Cook’s research noting in a e-mail to Geothink that “her work on mapping resources for homelessness in British Columbia corresponds with volunteer work that Alex did for street youth in Vancouver and is thus very appropriate.”

Cook’s work addresses an important issue faced by many communities where homeless populations are not able to efficiently locate suitable temporary shelter. Housing seekers and service providers have often lacked access to centralised, searchable information on gender-specific services, housing location and capacity.

Geothink Co-Applicant Alexander C.E. Aylett who passed away July of last year.

To confront this problem, Cook developed the i-Search Kelowna web map application (app). Supervised by Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, an associate professor in Community, Culture and Global Studies at UBC-Okanagan, Cook’s work is also supported by a team of researchers, funders and partners. Via the app, individuals seeking low-income rentals, emergency shelter and drop-in services are able to search for live, user-specific information about resource availability within the city of Kelowna.

Early feedback on the tool indicates that it is already providing users with a sense of ownership and advocacy over their own well-being and simplifying access to shelter information.

“It’s really about promoting empowerment, a greater sense of fairness and equity on the distribution of resources,” Cook said.

The project mirrors past volunteer work undertaken by Aylett that supported marginalised communities and contributed to his vision of cities as thriving, safe, and inspiring places for everyone to live. These are all values which Cook shares in her own work.

Cook emphasizes that partnerships formed between researchers, municipalities, businesses and community members are crucial to the development and durability of the project. By deeply routing themselves in the community, the researchers have made sure that their work has progressed to meet evolving needs and issues.

“I think again diverse groups with common interests can come together and create something that benefits the broader community,” Cook explains.

“Homelessness takes different forms over time, so we needed to make sure this tool was responsive and continuously informing strategies and approaches to the long-term issues,” she adds.

In this respect, the project has so far enjoyed a large amount of success. The City of Kelowna has embraced the platform to not only provide housing services but to inform its homelessness strategies and decision-making processes.

The generous support from the Dr. Alexander Aylett Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation is invaluable for ensuring continued commitment to the idea of cities as sustainable and equitable sites for innovation and development.

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If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Sam Lumley, Geothink’s newsletter editor, at sam.lumley@mail.mcgill.ca.

Geothink Co-Applicant, Colleague and Friend Leaves Behind Rich Legacy of Empowering Sustainable Urban Change at the Community Level

Alexander Aylett's research

Alexander Aylett’s research examined how cities’ use of digital technology, citizen-sensors, and open data could allow local communities, government leaders and private businesses to manage urban areas more sustainable.

By Drew Bush

Geothink Co-Applicant Alexander C.E. Aylett passed away on July 23, 2016 from cancer.

Geothink Co-Applicant Alexander C.E. Aylett passed away on July 23, 2016 from cancer.

Geothink Co-Applicant Alexander C.E. Aylett passed away on July 23, 2016 from cancer. A beloved son, husband and father, colleagues also remember him for his warmth and passion. His research empowered urban communities to engage with sustainable development through the use of digital technologies and open data.

His wife Luna, their two daughters, Inara and Aurora, her father Richard and his wife Claire, and his two brothers, Chris and Andrew, survive him. A memorial service was held in his honor on Sunday, July 31st at the Alfred Dallaire Memorial Lounge located in Montreal, Quebec.

“It’s a real loss to the community of people who want smart cities to help improve sustainability and environmental issues,” Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said.

“Alex was trying to make these ideas stick between the [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] CoLab and through ÉcoHackMtl,” she added. “He really wanted to do research that mattered and that made a difference. And to try to bridge the gap between academy and practice. So he was pushing forward on new work.”

Aylett’s research interrogated how cities’ use of digital technology, citizen-sensors, and open data could allow local communities, government leaders and private businesses to manage urban areas more sustainable. One outcome driven by these new mediums for exchanging information has been an enhanced capacity of cities to use citizens and resources to strategically tackle issues such as climate change.

“Alex was a wonderful person—intense, caring, and insightful into how to derive practical political solutions to urban sustainability,” Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, said. “He brought hackers, politicians, and environmentalists together to solve environmental and social problems through consensus and the pragmatic building of networks.”

Last February, Geothink spoke with Aylett about his work before writing an online article and podcast. We present previously unpublished excerpts of that audio interview here that capture the spirit of Aylett’s life and work. Find a written transcript at the end of this article.

Aylett joined the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in July 2015 but had been actively pursuing research on these issues as a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT. Since 2009, he had published 12 papers with his most recent book chapter entitled “Relational Agency and the Local Governance of Climate Change: International Trends and an American Exemplar” in The Urban Climate Challenge: Re-thinking the Role of Cities in the Global Climate Regime (find a full citation at the end of this article).

He earned a master’s in comparative literature (2004) followed by a doctorate in human geography (2011) both from the University of British Columbia. At INRS, he was actively recruiting a new masters and doctoral student to join his research team. He firmly believed in partnership-based research, writing in his advertisements for students that “It makes for stronger research, and reduces the gap between research and action.”

His absence will also be deeply felt by the many communities where he led projects, particularly as the founder and co-director of ÉcoHackMtl.

“In a way, you could say his work already lives on by the fact the he was a part of a range of different stakeholders that were looking for ways to innovate using open data,” said Jean-Noé Landry, executive director of Open North. Landry collaborated closely with Aylett on several projects including ÉcoHackMtl and had supervised one of his graduate students at Open North.

“The values that bind us together are those that really kind of enable us to find strength in achieving our collective vision,” Landry added after describing values he shared with Aylett about open data and better governance. “And so, the fact is that we need to have leaders that step up, and put this stuff forward, and put in the time, and drive change. But we’re stronger when we’re empowering those around us.”

“That’s really at the core of the open data community. So, yes, we are losing a leader but I think his leadership was such that he was able to bring in more people to talk about the potential of data, to talk about potential innovation, to talk about the seriousness of urban sustainability issues and the potential of open data to resolve those issues. I think carrying that vision forward—obviously let’s not forget him. But we share the goals he advocated.”

Friends and family of Aylett have requested that instead of flowers, those wishing to show support may instead contribute to a fund to support the family’s immediate needs. Find it here: https://www.gofundme.com/2gbuq7w

Book Chapter Citation
Aylett, A. (2015) “Relational Agency and the Local Governance of Climate Change: International Trends and an American Exemplar.” in The Urban Climate Challenge: Re-thinking the Role of Cities in the Global Climate Regime. Eds. Craig Johnson, Noah Toly, Heike Schroeder. (Routledge). 12 pages.

TRANSCRIPT OF ORIGINAL AUDIO

[Geothink.ca theme music]

Alexander Aylett, I’m a professor of urban sustainability governance and innovation at the Center for Urbanization, Culture, and Society of the National Institute for Scientific Research or the proper French title is Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal.”

“It’s really tricky to address a lot of the environmental impacts that are spread throughout the urban community. Right, sort of what people call collective action problems. And one of things that new technologies are very good at is building networked publics, right, coalitions of interest around—well I mean around all kinds of things. Around, you know, celebrity gossip and, you know, plastic surgery, you know, the biggest plastic surgery disasters. Ok, on the one hand fine. But also around much more meaningful stuff. Like green space. Like transit activism. Like creating community networks that are able to design and manage complex things. Like if you want to start talking about how you can manage a community energy transition, having good online platforms that are a tool that’s used in public mobilization and engagement strategies makes it possible to be more effective at the local level. But also then to scale up quite well from local action to action in other local areas either in the same city or in other cities.”

“I have a great example of that. There’s the 596-acres project. Do you know about it? It started in Brooklyn. And it’s a perfect example of how digital tools, open data and, then, a strong community mobilization that also works in the real world. Right this is not a 100 percent digital initiative. And I think that that’s why a lot of things fail. Is that they think that that digital is going to do all the work for them. But this is an example of how something can be very successful bridging digital and physical reality.”

“And what they do is that they have created an online map of all the vacant municipally owned land—well initially it started off in Brooklyn in New York City. And then a platform, sort of imagine a Facebook of sorts, which allowed people to say, ‘Oh yeah, I live around lot 77 at the corner of 5th and 22nd, and I’ve walked by that empty gravel lot my whole life. And I would love it if we could have a community garden there.’ And you post that. And then someone else who sees that lot and sees oh look someone else is already interested in doing a project here. ‘I wonder what it is?’ And they sign up too.”

“And so quite quickly you get clusters. You get networked group of local residents who might not know each other and who often don’t know each other otherwise that form online. But then meet in person and using data that they have taken from the New York City open data portal can identify which part of the municipality they need to contact if they want to propose a project—a citizen project to transform vacant land into a community asset. Whether it’s a park or a garden or, you know, some other maybe a market-space or that kind of thing.”

“And the stories that are coming out of that are interesting because they show that people will have walked past this space, some of them for 25 years, and always thought to themselves “ugh” we could do something so cool here if only I had some people to do it with me and I knew who I should contact if I wanted to get things done. And it’s another example of reducing barriers to action by providing access to just really key, strategic information.”

“So that’s what the open data does, that’s what the online portal does. It puts people in relationships with other neighbours but also with the city in a way that makes it possible to coordinate groups of people to start physically transforming their surroundings. And I think we’re going to see that same model applied to other tricky things.”

“Like if you’re trying to—well in Montreal for example—seven percent of our emissions, more or less, come from people who heat with fuel oil in their homes. And if you as an individual homeowner want to transition to electric heating or say geothermal or something more environmental, you can do that. But it’s a complex process. It’s expensive. And a lot of people begin the process of reflection and then decide not to just cause it’s all too daunting.”

“But in the same kind of way you could use data on energy consumption in neighbourhoods. Create a platform where residents who are all interested in shifting their homes onto a more sustainable fuel source could create groups and then collectively do a call for proposals. So that they could bid—so the companies could bid not on just one home but one 20 homes, for example, which would bring down the costs, which would simplify the process. And it would mean that instead of doing homes on a sort of a piecemeal fashion, you would be doing them on a community-by-community basis. And shifting the whole energy systems of a community.”

“And could you do that without the technology? Well, yeah, sure. You could have a leafleting campaign and you could have community volunteers that go out and knock on doors. And, actually, you’re probably still going to need all those things. But the adding on of layers of data and of cartography and of a good online interface and all that, I think just empowers people to do all that work more effectively and, then critically, for people elsewhere in the city to see what’s happening. And to understand how they can do something similar in their neighbourhood. And that’s traditionally sort of the Achilles heal of local action—which is that it’s hyper-local.”

“But new digital technologies give great local ideas legs by creating tools that are easily shareable and by creating inspiring examples that can travel. That can travel 10 blocks away or that can travel, you know, 100 km away, or can travel to the other side of the country. And so I think that example of effective local action and the speed at which things can travel and scale up is another exciting facet of the new technologies that we are seeing.”

[Geothink.ca theme music]

[Voice over: Geothoughts are brought to you by Geothink.ca and generous funding from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.]

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If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Gethoughts 8: How Technology is Reshaping Citizen Interactions on Climate Change

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Hydro Quebec is setting up a new circuit of public electric charging stations, one of many changes in the works as cities across Canada prepare for more environmentally friendly futures.

By Drew Bush

We’re very excited to present you with our eighth episode of Geothoughts. You can also subscribe to this Podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this episode, we examine what role Canada’s cities play in international solutions to climate change as well as how new technologies shape interactions in neighbourhoods and between neighbours on environmental issues. In it, we talk with Geothink researcher Alexander Aylett, a professor and researcher at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes. A transcript of this original audio podcast follows.

TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO PODCAST

Welcome to Geothoughts. I’m Drew Bush.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

Last week on Geothink.ca, we brought you a look at how open data and digital technology are reshaping the way cities plan for sustainable futures and how to act on issues such as climate change. Today we dive deeper into the changes taking place locally and internationally on this topic.

“One of the things I’m most excited about here in Montreal, is electrification of mobility in the city. So something in the order of 40 percent of Montreal’s GHG emissions come from moving people and things around in the city. Trucks, cars, trains—to a certain extent—all of those things. And what we’re seeing now is a real scaling up of, I guess, work that’s been happening over the past four or five years to electrify as much of that as we can.”

That’s the opinion of one expert who has been studying these issues from his office in Montreal, Quebec. We spoke with him over Skype this month.

“Alexander Aylett, I’m a professor of urban sustainability governance and innovation at the Center for Urbanization, Culture, and Society of the National Institute for Scientific Research or the proper French title is Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal.”

Aylett believes the time has come for changes that make transit, buildings, and energy more efficient in cities. That’s because cities can play an outsized role in confronting the important environmental issues of today by mixing a curious blend of new technology, empowered citizen groups, and long-term planning. The first signs heralding these changes are here.

“So we have Hydro Quebec that’s setting up la route verte où route bleu of publicly accessible charging points. And it started of with like two, three, four, five and you know now we’re aiming for a few thousand in the city within the next couple of years. And we’re seeing the launch of things like Téo taxi, where there is going to be, their plan, is—if I’m right about their deadlines—by next December is to have something like 2,000 new electric vehicles on the roads of Montreal. So a big private player dramatically increasing the number of electric vehicles that we’ve got on the roads. Similar action happening in big players like CommunAuto.” 

Such changes are not purely financial. Cultural shifts have occurred before in Montreal. Not long ago when the city began planning for the introduction of Bixi bike sharing, they didn’t tinker around the margins. Instead they created many more bike paths that were safer for riders and that have since been adopted by many residents. On environmental issues like climate change a similar transition may soon take place.

“We’ll see gas burning vehicles sort of being retired. New institutional players like taxis, for example, buying electric. Private citizens buying electric. But also private citizens realizing that the increased convenience of smart taxi services like Uber, and Téo, and Car-to-go, and other car sharing networks means that people don’t need to have a private vehicle in a lot of cases anymore. People who are sort of on the borderline zone of needing a car regularly but not every morning for their commute I think will be in a position to just abandon the private automobile in favor of convenient access to different mobility providers.”

Such changes would bode well for those who would see Canada reduce greenhouse gas emissions or GHGs. More cooperation is needed between actions taken by cities and those being coordinated on national and international levels. The 2015 Paris Agreement and the prominent role of cities in it means such a future is not just possible but likely, according to Aylett.

“Coming out of COP21 what we have is a much more open understanding of the fact that cities are a critical partner for states, provinces, and national governments. And I think—and this is why it’s such an exciting period right now, like particularly this next sort of six months—I think that we what we should be seeing is more effective partnerships between those different players. More funding coming down especially in Canada given the commitments our government has to fund urban infrastructure projects…Spreading from city to city to city effective interventions into different aspects of our urban environmental footprints. That’s fantastic.”

In a future where cities help solve climate change, different cities will each contribute a piece of the solution. In Montreal it may be innovations in transport technology and the manner in which individuals book transit, Vancouver may continue leading in green building efforts that incorporate “reach codes” so each step in efficiency serves to enhance the next, and Toronto may utilize new models and data to better plan where to locate parks and green roofs.

Some technological changes will undoubtedly allow citizens to contribute their expertise and opinions to solutions while others will focus on overcoming small barriers in daily life that could have a dramatic impact on environmental issues such as climate change.

“Basically we’re talking about reducing friction and reducing barriers to use where the simplicity of jumping into your car, and driving somewhere—even if in the end it creates congestion, it’s an un-enjoyable experience—it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction for some people because it’s so simple. And the public transit in some situations is more complex because you need to transfer, you need to use, maybe you need to use Bixi and the Metro and the bus. Things that are when you look at it seems more complicated. But having an interface like Transit App that just lays it all out for you means that from a user point of view, it reduces the barrier to switching from one type of behavior—driving in your car—to another type of behavior—which is getting there by any other, you know, means of mobility.”

“And the next phase of that, and this is something that we’re seeing already being considered in some places, like Singapore for example, is just to stop charging people for individual modes of transportation and start charging people for reaching their destination. And so the difference would be you open up your app, for example, and say, ‘I’m here and I need to get there.’ And the application uses smart open data about different modes of transportation to calculate for you a couple of different routes and charges you for the route. And so you just pay to get from your house to school or from your house to work or from your house to the art gallery.”

But that’s not all. New information technologies and open data platforms have a habit of helping citizens to organize to solve problems. Environmental issues like climate change are no different once the right data sets and support are in place.

“If you wanted to start talking about how you can manage a community energy transition, having good online platforms that are a tool that’s used in public mobilization and engagement strategies makes it possible to be more effective at the local level but also then to scale up quite well from local action to action in other local areas either in the same city or other cities.”

Aylett believes that such networked communities can bring together individuals who may have never known each other on topics of mutual concern. Such collaborative work can lead to a snowballing effect where changes to how cities respond to environmental issues might some day become inevitable.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

[Voice over: Geothoughts are brought to you by Geothink.ca and generous funding from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.]

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If you have thoughts or questions about this podcast, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

 

 

Envisioning An Environmentally Sustainable Urban Future Using Clean Digital Technologies

 

By Drew Bush

Imagine a world where electric taxis crowd Montreal’s downtown streets, green buildings efficiently manage energy consumption for Vancouverites, and Toronto’s city leaders monitor differences in neighbourhood surface heat emissions to best position green roofs. Now imagine the environmental and social impacts of such shifts when scaled-up for all of Canada’s cities.

That future—one that makes use of digital technology, citizen-sensors, and open data to manage urban areas more sustainable—may already be here according to some experts. In coming years, the company Téo taxi will bring the first fleet of electric taxis to Montreal’s streets while Hydro Quebec has also begun work to bring thousands of electric charging stations to the province of Quebec.

Globally, changes triggered by digital technologies and open data have already begun to impact how city leaders make decisions and engage with communities on environmental issues. One outcome of these new mediums for exchanging information has been enhanced capacity of cities to use citizens and resources to strategically tackle issues such as climate change.

I think it will be a noticeable difference on the streets of Montreal when you walk out and you see the white and green Téo taxis you know all through the downtown core,” said Geothink researcher Alexander Aylett, a professor and researcher at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique.You know we’re talking about a really large pool of electric vehicles. And the shift is an environmental one, but it’s also a social and a cultural one where people start to have direct experience with electric mobility. It will be really profound.”

Aylett noted that 40 percent of Montreal’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions derive from moving people and things around the city. Efforts to scale-up the ability of cities across Canada to manage and change truck, car, and train traffic is one of several goals city leaders across North America are pursuing, he added in a recent interview with Geothink.ca.

“So instead of just having one city that’s really strong in transit and another city that’s really strong in green buildings, we are seeing a shift—I think it’s a slow shift but I think we’re headed in that direction—where cities are approaching sustainability and trying be leaders in multiple sectors,” Aylett said. “So buildings, transit, energy—all of it.”

The City of the Future

City leaders around the world are aware that municipalities themselves only control a very small percent of the urban infrastructure that directly and indirectly can lead to environmental damage. Cities also cause environmental damages well beyond their geographic scope making it more difficult for them to reduce impacts. Consequently, solutions that rely on taxation or legislation may have limited ability to dramatically shift the myriad social behaviors tied to environmental issues like climate change.

Technology makes possible not only harnessing the individual abilities of citizens—think transit engineers, architects, and software developers—in networked communities but also new understandings of how urban systems impact local and international environmental problems.

Take, for example, the urban heat island effect. Described by scientists, it concerns the process by which urban surfaces absorb more solar energy and re-admit it as thermal energy (primarily at night) than do surrounding non-paved areas. Better modelling of local and regional climatological processes using citizen sensors can allow cities to pin-point which neighbourhoods are most susceptible to this problem and plan strategically.

Technology may also one day revolutionize how environmental issues are managed locally. The release of open data on neighbourhood energy consumption, water use, and waste disposal make it possible for cities to work with the private sector, non-profits, and academics to better manage flows of materials, goods, and energy in urban areas. Researchers sometimes call such measurement work “urban metabolism.”

“All of those things are being enabled in a way that we’ve never seen before by new technology,” Aylett said. “So the output is becoming a much deeper understanding of how our cities function and the impacts that they have. And where, if you want to think about it like acupuncture, where you can take strategic action in one space that will cause sort of systemic shifts in those impacts.”

He added that visualization and cartographic technologies now make it possible to take information that’s quite complex and make it understandable even for non-experts. What’s more difficult to assess is how such technological tools make possible collaborative action that builds around specific issues as they spread through a community.

Cities in International Climate Politics

Individual cities around the world have shown international and national climate change negotiators what’s possible in tackling climate change mitigation and adaptation, according to Aylett. This despite the inability of some provincial/state and federal governments to incorporate and engage with such local solutions, he added.

Yet much work remains. In an inventory of the open data portals of 20 of the largest Canadian cities Aylett completed last summer, he determined that things like parks and green spaces are well represented while others such as energy consumption or air quality are entirely absent. Aylett hopes the addition of such data will increasingly play an important role in urban environmental management. But it’s still “early days” for this type of open data, he repeated often during the interview, noting that researchers in public health could make a similar complaint.

“So far cities in Canada are not providing on their open data web sites the basic ingredients for innovation around urban sustainability or for you know effective action within the municipality,” he cautioned. “There is a lot of good data that cities have that so far hasn’t been made available. And what that means—it’s a negative and it’s a positive. It means that there is huge potential for the cities that decide to be strategic about it to lay the groundwork for a really interesting period in municipal policy making, and innovation, and experimentation here in Canada.”

Stay tuned for our audio podcast with Alex Aylett to hear him talk about cities and international solutions to climate change as well as how new technologies shape interactions in neighbourhoods and between neighbours on environmental issues.

Also tweet him at @openalex_ and check him out at Open Alex.

Photo Credits:
Slide 1 – Roulez Électrique
Slide 2 – Gladki Planning Associates
Slide 3 – VanCity Buzz

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Crosspost: Green Cities and Smart Cities: The potential and pitfalls of digitally-enabled green urbanism

The Vancouver Convention Centre in Vancouver, BC, Canada was the world's first LEED Platinum-certified convention center. It also has one of the largest green roofs in Canada. Image Credit: androver / Shutterstock.com

The Vancouver Convention Centre in Vancouver, BC, Canada was the world’s first LEED Platinum-certified convention center. It also has one of the largest green roofs in Canada. Image Credit: androver / Shutterstock.com

This post is cross-posted with permission from Alexander Aylett, from UGEC Viewpoints. Aylett is an Assistant Professor at the Centre on Urbanisation, Culture and Society at the National Institute for Scientific Research (UCS-INRS) in Montreal, Quebec.

By Alexander Aylett

Since its early days, the discourse around “smart cities” has included environmental sustainability as one of its core principles. The application of new digital technologies to urban spaces and processes is celebrated for its ability to increase the well-being of citizens while reducing their environmental impacts. But this engagement with sustainability has been limited to a technocratic focus on energy systems, building efficiency, and transportation. It has also privileged top-down interventions by local government actors. For all its novelty, the smart cities discussion is operating with a vision of urban sustainability that dates from the 1990s, and an approach to planning from the 1950s.

This definition of “urban sustainability” overlooks key facets of a city’s ecological footprint (such as food systems, resource consumption, production related greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, and the urban heat island effect). It also ignores the ability of non-state actors to contribute meaningfully to the design and implementation of urban policies and programs. But that doesn’t need not be the case. In fact, if employed properly, new information technologies seem like ideal tools to address some of urban sustainability’s most persistent challenges.

Progress and Lasting Challenges in Local Climate Governance

Let’s take a step back. Often discussions of smart cities begin with an account of the capabilities of specific technologies or interfaces and then imagine urbanism – and urban sustainability – through the lense of those technologies. I’d like to do the opposite: beginning with the successes and lasting challenges faced by urban sustainability and interpreting the technologies from within that context. To understand the role that “smart” technologies could play in enabling sustainable cities, it’s useful to first look at what we have managed to accomplish so far, and what still needs to be done.

For those of us working on sustainable cities and urban responses to climate change, the past two decades have been a period of both amazing successes and enduring challenges. In the early 1990s a handful of cities began promoting the (at that time) counterintuitive idea that local governments had a key role to play in addressing global climate change. Since then, the green cities movement has won significant discursive, political, and technical battles.

Global inter-municipal organizations like ICLEI or the C40 now have memberships that represent thousands of cities. Two decades of work have created planning standards and tools and an impressive body of “best practice” literature. Through the sustained efforts of groups like ICLEI, cities are now recognized as official governmental stakeholders in the international climate change negotiations coordinated by the United Nations.

But – crucially – real urban emissions reductions are lagging well below what is needed to help keep global CO2 within safe limits. Looking at the efforts of individual cities and the results of a global Urban Climate Change Governance survey that I conducted while at MIT (Aylett 2014, www.urbanclimatesurvey.com ) shows why. Apart from a small contingent of charismatic cities like Vancouver, Portland, or Copenhagen, cities are struggling to move beyond addressing the “low hanging fruit” of emission from municipal facilities ( i.e., vehicle fleet, municipal buildings, street lighting – known as “corporate emissions”) to taking action on the much more significant emissions generated by the broader urban community (i.e., business, industry, transportation, and residential emissions).

This problem has been with us since the early days of urban climate change responses. But how we understand it has changed significantly. Where some cities used to inventory only their corporate emissions, this is now rare. Current guidelines cover community-wide emissions and work is underway to create a global standard for emissions inventories that will also engage with emissions produced in the manufacture of the goods and services consumed within cities (see Hoornweg et al. 2011).

Built on the increased scope of our technical understanding of urban emissions, is a change in how we understand the work of governing climate change at the local level. A top-down vision of climate action focused on the regulatory powers of isolated local government agencies is being replaced by one that is horizontal, relational, and collaborative. This approach transforms relationships both inside and outside of local governments, by linking together traditionally siloized municipal agencies and also forging partnerships with civil-society and business actors (Aylett 2015).

The increased prominence of non-state actors in urban climate change governance has led to growing calls for partnerships across the public-private divide (Osofsky et al. 2007; Andonova 2010; Bontenbal and Van Lindert 2008). These partnerships play an important role in overcoming gaps in capacity, translating the climate change impacts and response options into language that is meaningful to different groups and individuals, and accelerating the development of solutions. Follow-up analysis of the 2014 MIT-ICLEI Climate survey shows that these partnerships have an important positive impact on the scope of concrete emissions reductions. Cities with stronger partnerships appear to be more able to create concrete emissions reductions outside of areas directly controlled by the municipality.

The street car in Portland, Oregon, USA. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

The street car in Portland, Oregon, USA. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

This evolution in approaches to climate change planning follows a broader current in urban planning more generally which, since the 1960s have moved away from expert driven and technocratic processes and created increasing amounts of space for participatory processes and facilitative government.

In a nutshell, an increasingly complex and holistic technical understanding of urban emissions is being matched by an increasing horizontal and networked approach to governing those emissions. (A similar shift is taking place in the more recent attention to urban adaptation and resilience.)

But plans and programs based on this understanding quickly run into the significant barriers of institutional siloization and path dependency, a lack of effective information sharing, challenges of data collection and analysis, and difficulty mobilizing collective and collaborative action across multiple diverse and dispersed actors (Aylett 2014). The strength of collaborative multi-stakeholder responses is also their weakness. While effective climate change action may not be possible without complex networks of governance, coordinating these networks is no simple task. The subject of urban climate change governance has been the focus of an expanding body of research (Aylett 2015, 2014, 2013; Betsill & Bulkeley 2004, 2007; Burch 2010; Burch et al. 2013; Romero-Lankao et al. 2013.)

“Smart” Urban Climate Governance

Seen from this perspective, the allure of “smart” approaches to green cities is precisely the fact that information technology tools seem so well suited to the challenges that have stalled progress so far. Collecting, sharing and analysing new and existing data, and coordinating complex multi-scalar social networks of collaborative design and implementation are precisely what has drawn attention to new technologies in other sectors.

Disappointingly, current applications of a data-driven and technologically enabled approach to urban sustainability are far from delivering on this potential. Reading through the literature shows that the many interesting works that address the impacts of new technologies on urban governance (for example Elwood 2010, Evans-Cowley 2010, Goldsmith and Crawford 2015, Moon 2002) have nothing to say about the governance of urban sustainability. Work that does address environmental sustainability is dominated by a technocratic focus on energy systems, building efficiency, and transportation that privileges top-down action by municipal experts and planning elites (The Climate Group 2008, Boorsma & Wagener 2007, Kim et al. 2009, Villa & Mitchell 2009). This literature review is ongoing, and I continue to hope to find a body of work that combines a developed understanding of urban sustainability with a detailed reflection on digital governance. As it is, we seem to be working with outdated approaches to both urban sustainability and planning.

An off-shore wind farm near Copenhagen, Denmark. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

An off-shore wind farm near Copenhagen, Denmark. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

How to update this approach, and use the full potential of data-driven, technologically enabled, and participatory approaches to spur accelerated transitions to sustainable cities is a key question. This research is necessary if we are going to unlock the full potential of the “smart” urbanism to address the necessity of building sustainable cities. It is also important that we avoid rolling back the clock on two decades of “green cities” research by basing our digital strategies around outdated understandings of the urban sustainability challenge.

Conclusions

Cities are responsible for as much as 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions and consume 75 percent of the world’s energy (Satterthwaite 2008). These figures are often repeated. But taking action at that scale requires both technological and socio-institutional innovations. Efforts to reduce urban emissions are challenged by the complexity of coordinating broad coalitions of action across governmental, private, and civil-society actors, and the need to effectively collect, share, and analyse new and existing data from across these traditionally siloized sectors.

These complexities have played an important role in limiting actual urban emissions reductions far below what is needed to stabilize global emissions within a safe range. Interestingly, these complexities are also the very strengths of emerging information and communications technologies (ICT) tools and Geoweb enabled approaches to urban planning and implementation. Currently, the use of “smart” approaches to address the urban climate challenge has been limited to narrow and technocratic initiatives. But much more is possible. If effective bridges can be built between the ICT and Urban Sustainability sectors, a profound shift in approaches to the urban governance of climate change could be possible. It is important to increase both sustainability and digital literacy among those involved. Only then will innovations in urban sustainability benefit from a deep understanding of both the new tools at our disposal, and the complex challenge to which we hope to apply them.

(A previous version of this was presented as part of the Geothink pre-event at the 2015 American Association of Geographers conference in Chicago. IL. See: www.geothink.ca)

Alexander Aylett is Assistant Professor at the Centre on Urbanisation, Culture and Society at the National Institute for Scientific Research (UCS-INRS) in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.