In this issue, we celebrate the start of a new year by reflecting upon five successful Geothink&Learn webinars and highlighting exciting new Geothink research.
We catch up with Geothink Co-Applicant Teresa Scassa about her work on data deficits
in the sharing economy; Geothink Collaborator Muki Haklay about his new open course
on Citizen Science; former Geothink student Julia Conzon about her recent appointment
at Employment and Social Development Canada; and other grant news.
If you have feedback or content for the newsletter, please contact the Editor, Sam Lumley.
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.
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.
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If you have thoughts or questions about this podcast, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clean electric Téo taxi will be coming to Montreal in coming years following its investment in the city.
Climate change, in combination with the urban heat island effect, is expected to exacerbate current warming trends in urban areas that will impact human health.
An artist’s rendering of the new Exchange tower – a LEED-certified project in Vancouver that was integrated into the restored Old Stock Exchange building. Canada and Vancouver in particular have been recognized for leadership in green building.
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.
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.