Tag Archives: urban sustainability

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.


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.


[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.]


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.

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.