Tag Archives: Geothoughts

Geothoughts Conversations 4: Ringing in the New Year with A Look Back at the Geothink Partnership Grant

Geothoughts Conversations 4 explores our key research outcomes and influences, and was held near McGill University’s downtown campus in Montreal, Quebec. (Image courtesy of http://jeannesauve.org)

By Sam Lumley

We’re excited to present our 4th episode of Geothoughts Conversations!

This episode recounts a conversation held in June 2018 in the Montreal, QC home of Geothink Head Renee Sieber, a McGill University associate professor in the Department of Geography and School of Environment. It highlighted key research outcomes and influences over Geothink’s journey from beginning to end.

We were joined by Sieber, then Project Manager Sonja Solomon (a doctoral candidate in McGill University’s School of Information Studies) and current Project Manager Drew Bush (a postdoctoral researcher in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment).

You can find  this episode below! You can also subscribe to our Podcasts by finding it on iTunes where it will also soon be available.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes.

Happy Holidays from everyone here at Geothink!


If you have thoughts or questions about this podcast, get in touch with Sam Lumley, Geothink’s digital journalist, at sam.lumley@mail.mcgill.ca.

Geothoughts 15: Reflections from Geothink’s Researchers at the Conclusion of the Grant

2015 Geothink Summer Institute students, faculty and staff

By Sam Lumley

We’re excited to present our 15th episode of Geothoughts. You can also subscribe to this Podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this episode, we take a look back over five years of fruitful Geothink research. We spoke to Geothink Head Renee Sieber, Co-Applicants Rob Fieck, Daniel Paré and Stéphane Roche, and Geothink students Rachel Bloom and Edgar Baculi about their most memorable experiences with the grant.

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


Welcome to Geothoughts. I’m Sam Lumley.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

“The Geothink grant that was funded by the social science and humanities research council of Canada is coming to an end. We have done great work in terms of creating new theories, new frameworks, new applications, new data sets new collaborations.”

That was Geothink Head Renee Sieber, an associate professor at McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment. Funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Geothink partnership grant has involved 26 researchers and 30 partners, while also training more than 100 students. As the grant wraps up, we’ve been hearing from our researchers and students as they reflect on their involvement in the grant over the past five years.

We started off by speaking to former Geothink student Rachel Bloom about her most memorable experiences with the grant.

“I was the lead of Geothink’s Open Data Standards project when I was a student at McGill University. The most memorable Geothink experience would have to be designing a survey that I delivered to open data publishers at cities in north america about open-data standards. It’s memorable because it was a really challenging process due to my research topic being so new. And it also helped me develop my skills as a researcher for the future.”

The Geothink grant has brought together researchers from many different backgrounds and from different parts of the world. It was this point that Geothink co-applicant Rob Feick, an associate professor in Waterloo University’s School of Planning, emphasised while talking about the influence of Geothink on his own work.

“My research has really benefited from my work with Geothink in a few ways, one of which is Geothink is really a multi disciplinary network. It’s a network of people that span disciplines from geography, law, planning and a host of others. And having these different types of expertise around the table has really helped ground my research.”

“It’s also very applied work we’re working with local regional governments on problems that matter to people, both problems that matter to people right now and those that people are seeing both in the research community and in applied context, coming down the pipe in future years. So one of the ways, just using special data quality as of those areas that a number of us have been looking at and that that I have really benefited from in my exposure in Geothink, is understanding that it is far less of a technical matter and it’s a combination of technical and a social and governance matter, and we’re starting to understand that something that we thought was relatively simple, of spatial data quality, is much more complex.”

This interdisciplinary approach was also highlighted by Sieber, as being essential to  exploring how interactions between citizens and government are mediated by technology.

“It’s been marvelous in terms of the interdisciplinary of bringing together geographers lawyers, people in the private sector, people in government to work on issues of what’s happening to the conversations between citizens and cities. And on how can we make sure the technology is not an impediment, but actually enhances that conversation”

Working alongside people from different academic fields can help to offer a broader perspective on the big issues facing citizens and governments.  It also led some Geothink researchers to shift their own own research interests. This was the case for Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, an associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, who talked about his focus moving from the technical to the ethical over the course of the grant.

“My main interest within Geothink was more about social inclusion within a smart city context, spatial justice and ethics, which was quite far from what I was supposed to do at the beginning. So in my case, the move was quite big. Geothink is as a network different sectors, different disciplines, different expertise, and working on these issues around the relationship between spatial and social justice, cities and technology. And that that was really remarkable. I really enjoyed and appreciated the the dynamism and the motivation of our group of students, some of them coming from law, some others from engineering some from social science. And it was really rich in term of interaction.”

Throughout the grant new partnerships and opportunities have emerged, and co-applicant Daniel Paré, an associate professor in the University of Ottawa’s Department of Communication and School of Information Studies, highlighted his new collaborations with the Open Government Partnership.

“My involvement with Geothink has influenced my research in so much as it has opened the door towards getting to work with OGP partnership. So based on my Geothink work in open data and open government, that’s transformed, if you will, into the role with the OGP. Where I’m responsible for overseeing assessments of the implementation of Ontario’s Open Data Action Plan.”

We went on to ask Paré about his most memorable experiences as part of the grant.

“I think the most memorable experience has been working with the great team that was put together, and that includes our great team of students that are brought together every year in terms of the student based meetings and such. So for me that’s always been a highlight of the team actually getting together physically and meeting over a period of three to four days. That’s been key; those sessions always been so rich on multiple levels.”

Opportunities for collaboration and exchange were facilitated by the four Geothink summer institutes. Many collaborators and partners emphasised how helpful it was to bring researchers, partners and students together under one roof. Feick pointed to 2015 Summer Institute held at McGill University as being his most memorable moment.

“I’ve had a lot of memorable moments in this in this project over the years, but I think the one that sticks with me the most was at a summer institute that we had for the Geothink students here at waterloo. The summer institutes are opportunities where students from a variety of different universities could come together and work on an applied problem and learn about a particular aspect of geospatial information and its interfacing with society.”

“Students in this particular summer institute had the task of developing an application. We had teams of students that hadn’t met before that came together over the course of a week and put together some really fantastic applications. And these applications, I think, spurred a lot of their own research that they were going to continue on with, but also was really interesting to see how again the different perspectives that the students brought, along with those people that were assisting them through the SI, actually came to fruition.”

The summer institutes also stood out to former Geothink student Edgar Baculi, now a graduate researcher in Ryerson’s Department of Geography.

“We have all these disciplines and I remember benefing greatly from talking to the economics student, sociologist, communication and journalism students on the topic open data and it opened my mind to the idea of, if we’re talking about open data it’s not just going to be the GIS people who are going to benefit or the academics, it’s going to be the sociology students, it’s going to be a journalist from the Toronto Star, it’s going to be all these people who need to understand what open-data is from their perspective and from other perspectives.”

“So, I would say, Geothink was very important in letting me know the inside from other perspectives. And as for networking, that’s a lot of disciplines to go through, and we were all from across canada, and I think actually a few of us were from the States, if I remember correctly, so it was a great networking experience. Many of them are still friends of mine on twitter and LinkedIn, so, great experience.”

The five-year Geothink Partnership Grant may be coming to its conclusion, but the research and its applications will continue. We asked Sieber what lay in store for Geothink’s research themes, the community the partnership helped to foster and the grant’s continuing work.

“We have transformed, I’m happy to say, the lives of over 100 students. I’d like to think that we transformed the lives of many people in the public sector and the private sector across canada. I know it has certainly transformed my life. It has transformed the life of the researchers involved in this project.”

“So while this grant ends, that doesn’t mean that Geothink as a concept, and a research trajectory has ended. Many of our apps will live on beyond us. Certainly our research and our own research trajectories have been changed as a result, so that work’s going to go on even after the grant ends. And, of course, we’re also looking for new grants to pursue this research!”

[Geothink.ca theme music]

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


If you have thoughts or questions about this podcast, get in touch with Sam Lumley, Geothink’s digital journalist, at sam.lumley@mail.mcgill.ca.


Geothoughts Conversations 3: Defining Smart Cities and the Human Relationship to New Decision-Making Processes

Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, chats with students during a coffee break at Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

By Drew Bush

One of the hallmarks of any academic conference are the conversations that take place in-between sessions, in hallways and over meals. In our third Geothink Conversations, we aim to give you a flavor of these discussions at Geothink’s now concluded 2017 Summer Institute.

The theme of this year’s Institute was “Smart City: Toward a Just City.” An interdisciplinary group of faculty and students tackled many of the policy, legal and ethical issues related to smart cities. Each of the three days of the Summer Institute combined workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that culminated in a competition judged by Montreal city officials and local tech entrepreneurs.

The topic of our conversation was how to make sure human concerns remain paramount in the design of increasingly digital smart cities. It features Open North Executive Director Jean-Noé Landry; Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics; and, Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography. And, of course, I’m Drew Bush and I’ll be helping steer the conversation along.

To start us off, Roche got the conversation rolling on how to understand smart cities as a transition from urban living as it has been portrayed since the early 18th century to a new type of city based upon social organization and community that is aided by open data and digital technology.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes.


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.

Crosspost: Geothoughts on Geothink

An image of the Castlegar campus at Selkirk College with the Mir Centre for Peace visible on the right. (Photo courtesy of Karen Godbout.)

By Karen Godbout

This post originally appeared on the Rural Open Data site which reports on research taking place as part of a three year grant investigating open data best practices, policy and delivery options in southeastern British Columbia. The author is in the final year of her Bachelor’s of Geographic Information Science (BGIS) at Selkirk College and is currently working at the Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre.

I am presently completing a summer work term at the Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre, supporting its Rural Open Data study. In September, I will enter the final year of a BGIS, also at Selkirk. I came to GIS from a humanities background, after many years working in libraries. I am really fortunate to have been guided toward the possibilities for GIS within the humanities, like open government data, and will continue to focus in that area.

The Geothink Summer Institute (May 25-27, McGill University, Montreal) was a unique opportunity to meet and collaborate with fellow students from multiple provinces (Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, B.C.) and academic disciplines (GIS, Geography, Law, Urban Planning), as well as varying levels of study (from undergrad to doctorate). The theme of this year’s institute was “Smart Cities – Just Cities.” While it certainly was not lacking in solid examples of policies and applications, most of the dialogue and problem solving at the institute centred on the emerging potential of smart cities. With so many standards yet to be developed, and so much infrastructure still to build, I came away with big ideas, concepts, and philosophies more than any other thing. I also learned why that is a good outcome. We stand in the enormously fortunate and powerful position of determining exactly what smart cities will be. If they are to be equitable, accessible, sustainable, social, and safe places, it will be determined by the questions we ask and answer right now.

X: What exactly is the meaning of ‘smart’ in the smart cities context? Primarily, the default concept of smart is the one developed centuries ago, meaning logical, well reasoned, and scientific. During the 1990s and 2000s, the social sciences transitioned into the idea of multiple intelligences. First, it was emotional intelligence. Then social intelligence. Eventually there were bodily, intuitive, and existential intelligences. It all became a little bit silly, which may be why we continue to return to the default. Still, there is value in considering different aspects of smart. Consider Artificial Intelligence (AI) for example. No matter how many algorithms are developed, or how much data is processed, ‘the rules’ will always limit machine learning. The elements of human consciousness that add up to smart remain a mystery, and I daresay the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What is the algorithm for imagination? In the context of smart cities we must also ask, what is data? Again, the default is measurable and precise, facilitating all sorts of amazing, practical solutions to significant human problems. Yet humans remain unpredictable, and cities are messy. Much of what makes a place meaningful and livable for its citizens is not quantifiable. In determining the smart/just city, space must be included for the qualitative, the organic, and the random.

Y: What normative influences are smart cities to have upon the behaviour and expectations of citizens?  With smartphones, wireless, and up-to-the-minute GPS data, there comes an ability to control and personalize the urban environment more and more. Don’t want to wait in the rain for the bus? See when it’s 30 seconds away from the stop. Want the city to fill in that pothole? Submit a photo and see it move up the road-repair priorities list. Great stuff, right? The issue being, as individualized services increase, so do expectations, and the false perception that convenience is a right. The smart/just city must very intentionally cultivate engagement with the entire community, deliberately seeking inclusive input from the less enfranchised, whether it be due to language, income, age, or intellect. Fostering the communal spirit within cities will require a massive culture shift for some, and arouse the suspicion of many. The selling point is innovation. Just as in nature, diversity results in adaptability for cities. Variability creates opportunity for new ideas, social benefits, and economic growth.

Z: Can the smart cities model grow engagement and increase unity among communities?  Knowing more about someone or something brings it closer, makes it matter more. As the information age crashes into the big data minute, what any human being can know and care about becomes increasingly narrow, at least in any practical, useable way. Any group one identifies with is progressively exclusive, and may be more ideological than spatial. Constructing smart/just cities from the ground up, from grassroots neighbourhoods and villages, is the reasonable place to begin. But, generating a sense of unity among these will not simply happen once the end is achieved. Pre-existing government data, when made open, can help build community cohesion at every step, giving each group an equal voice and connecting the common links between them.

What will determine the smart city?  In this as in everything, the means matter.

Geothoughts 13: A conversation with Open North and Ajah on the challenges for open data advocacy

By Peck Sangiambut


Geothoughts is back! In this episode of the podcast we sit down with two Geothink research partners, Open North and Ajah, to talk about the challenges they face in Canada’s current open data and open government environment. Jean-Noe Landry (of Open North) and Michael Lenczner (of Ajah) are some of the original advocates for open data in Montreal and continue on their mission to bring positive change and innovation to government. Our guests spoke of their background advocating for open data in the (now closed) non-profit, Montreal Ouvert, and the current challenges they face in their respective organisations. They stressed the need for well-defined missions for advocacy, and for continued support from government and non-governmental funders.

We also have a new host, and some new intro music. If you have feedback on this podcast, please contact me at suthee.sangiambut@mail.mcgill.ca

Thank you for tuning in. We hope you subscribe to Geothoughts on iTunes, and follow us on Twitter @geothinkca

Geothoughts Talks 4, 5, 6, & 7: Four Talks to Remember from the 2016 Summer Institute

Peter Johnson was one of four Geothink Co-Applicants who gave presentations at the 2016 Geothink Summer Institute. Listen to their lectures here as podcasts.

Peter Johnson was one of four Geothink Co-Applicants who gave presentations on day two of the 2016 Geothink Summer Institute. Listen to their lectures here as podcasts.

By Drew Bush

Geothink’s Summer Institute may have concluded but, for those of you who missed it, we bring you four talks to remember. These lectures come from day two of the institute when four Geothink faculty members gave short talks on their different disciplinary approaches to evaluating open data.

The lectures feature Peter Johnson, an assistant professor at Waterloo University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Planning; Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa; Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; And, Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment.

Students at this year’s institute learned difficult lessons about applying actual open data to civic problems through group work and interactions with Toronto city officials, local organizations, and Geothink faculty. The last day of the institute culminated in a writing-skill incubator that gave participants the chance to practice communicating even the driest details of work with open data in a manner that grabs the attention of the public.

Held annually as part of a five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, each year the Summer Institute devotes three days of hands-on learning to topics important to research taking place in the grant. This year, each day of the institute alternated lectures and panel discussions with work sessions where instructors mentored groups one-on-one about the many aspects of open data.

Below we present you with a rare opportunity to learn about open data with our experts as they discuss important disciplinary perspectives for evaluating the value of it. You can also subscribe to these Podcasts by finding them on iTunes.

Geothoughts Talk 4: Reflecting on the Success of Open Data: How Municipal Governments Evaluate Open Data Programs
Join Peter Johnson as he kicks off day two of Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute by inviting students to dream that they are civil servants at the City of Toronto when the city receives a hypothetical “F” rating for its open data catalogue. From this starting premise, Johnson’s lecture interrogates how outside agencies, academics, and organizations evaluate municipal open data programs. In particular, he discusses problems with current impact studies such as the Open Data 500 and what other current evaluation techniques look like.

Geothoughts Talk 5: The Value of Open Data: A Legal Perspective

Teresa Scassa starts our fifth talk by discussing how those working in the discipline of law don’t usually participate in the evaluation of open data. While those in law don’t actually evaluate open data, however, legal statutes often are responsible for mandating such valuation, she argues. In particular, legal statutes often require specific types of data to be open. Furthermore, provisions in Canadian law such as the Open Courts Principle mean that many aspects of Canada’s legal system can be open-by-default.

Geothoughts Talk 6: Open Data: Questions and Techniques for Adding Civic Value
Pamela Robinson dispels the notion that open data derives value from economic benefits by instead discussing how such data can be used to fundamentally shift the relationship between civil society and institutions. She elaborates on this idea by noting that not all open data sets are created equal. Right now, she argues, the mixed ways in which open data is released can dramatically impact whether or not it’s useful to civic groups hoping to work with such data.

Geothoughts Talk 7: Measuring the Value of Open Data
In a talk that helps to summarize the previous three presenters, Renee Sieber discusses the different ways in which open data can be evaluated. She details many of the common quantitative metrics used—counting applications generated at a hackathon, the number of citizens engaged, or the economic output from a particular dataset—before discussing some qualitative indicators of the importance of a specific open data set. Some methods can likely capture certain aspects of open data better than others. She then poses a series of questions on how one can actually attach a value to the increased democracy or accountability gained by using open data.

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

Geothoughts 10: Governing Makerspaces in Toronto with Jordan Bowden

A McGill University undergraduate has undertaken unique research on the governance of Toronto’s Makerspaces.

By Drew Bush

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

In this episode, we examine a project funded by McGill University Arts Undergraduate Research Internship Award (ARIA) and Geothink. In it, one student has found a huge variance between the types of Makerspaces found in Toronto. The city’s groups represent what McGill University Undergraduate Jordan Bowden calls a unique Canadian evolution of the Makerspace concept. He worked with Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment.

A Makerspace is a place where people come together and share commonly owned tools, equipment, or software to learn new skills. They can be for profit, they can be non-profit, they can be run by a group of individuals, or by larger institutions like universities or libraries. First popular in China and other Asian countries, these do-it-yourself (DIY) spaces where people can gather to create, invent, and learn have also spread to the United States and, more recently, Canada. Many of Canada’s Makerspaces face little formal regulation and differ greatly from their formulations than in other countries.

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


Welcome to Geothoughts. I’m Drew Bush.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

“So Makerspaces, there are a lot of different terms that have sort of been in the same sphere as Makerspaces, ranging from Hackerspaces to Hacklabs to Fablabs to even some shared studio spaces which are less formal. All of kind have been put underneath the umbrella term of a Makerspace. And a Makerspace basically is a place where people come together and use commonly owned tools.”

That’s McGill University Undergraduate Jordan Bowden on his unique yearlong honours thesis project investigating how governance works in 10 different Toronto Makerspaces. He’s a long-time participant in the work being done in Makerspaces. He also recently completed his thesis for Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment.

“They can be for profit, they can be non-profit, they can be run by a group of individuals, or by larger institutions like universities or libraries. So in my research, I find that there is a huge variance of the practices between spaces that were using this term. Especially in Toronto which is where my research is focused. There was, there was just a huge variety of Makerspaces. I studied about 10 Makerspaces in my research. And some of them are run just groups of artists who are using commonly owned tools. Others were run by the local library and really focused on sort of entrepreneurship and that sort of thing.”

Still confused about how to define a Makerspace? You might not be alone, as the concept has varied and evolved as it has spread globally.

“So, yeah, I mean the term itself has only really emerged over the past four to five years I’d say. And before then, like Hackerspaces and Hacklabs, have like that term itself has a much longer history stretching all the way back to the 1990s. The main distinction there is that Hacklabs and Hackerspaces are often focused more on computers. Whereas Makerspaces can be focused really on any sort of production be it computers or woodworking or metalworking and that sort of thing.”

Bowden says that the question of how such spaces are governed in Canada is an entirely new one. And he adds that it’s crucial: What Makerspaces can actually do is greatly affected by how they are run.

“Within each Makerspace, some Makerspaces have sort of formal committees wherein makers are actually involved in the running of the space in every aspect. Whereas others are pretty much governed by a handful of people. Be they like a single executive director at a non-profit organization or like multiple actors in a for profit Makerspace. So it’s, yeah, there’s a lot there. My paper covers a lot of different examples of this. Yeah, there’s a lot of different actors involved.”

The project took Bodwen a great deal of time to research, conduct field work for, and then write about in the fall and winter of this academic year.

“I’ve been working on it basically since last summer. I did field research in Toronto over August of last year where I conducted 10 different interviews. I used nine in my research. And I also did observation at different Makerspaces around the city, and went to maker related events and did observation there as well.”

Not every hypothesis that Bowden hoped to explore panned out in the Canadian context of Toronto.

“I though there would be governmental actors involved, but I really found, I kept on trying to snowball and finding more people to interview. But it people kept on saying the same people I had already interviewed. So it was like who else should I interview? And then I would get the same answers from multiple people. So I realized the scene was pretty small. So instead I did more in depth interviews. They were each about 30 minutes to an hour long each.”

This work led Bowden to author a 63-page honours thesis entitled “Governance of Makerspaces in Toronto, Canada.” Find this paper at the McGill University library soon.

[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 podcast, 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


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.


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.

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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.