Tag Archives: governance

Geothink&Learn Webinar Series Kicks off Ultimate Year of the Partnership Research Grant

When Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson kicked off the inaugural Geothink&Learn on Pokémon Go and governance live to the public this past Wednesday, October 4, it marked a new phase in the five-year Geothink partnership research grant.

By Drew Bush

When Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson kicked off the inaugural Geothink&Learn on Pokémon Go and governance live to the public this past Wednesday, October 4, it marked a new phase in the five-year Geothink partnership research grant. Five panelists shared insight on the broader implications of the popular augmented reality game that captured the screens of smartphone users last spring, Pokémon Go. The panel was followed by a lively discussion between participants and panelists during a question and answer session.

“In the final year of our five-year partnership grant, our original themes have emerged into concrete research collaborations and products,” Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, said. “As a result, we’re inviting the Geothink community and the public at large to come learn with our experts, think about what they’ve just heard, and discuss online with our community.”

The first Geothink&Learn featured a dynamic panel from Canada and the United States with interdiscplinary perspectives on Pokémon Go and its implications for governance, social equity, legal issues and urban planning. Robinson, an associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and the associate dean for Graduate Studies and Strategic Services, convened the session. Speakers included Sieber; Tenille Brown, adjunct professor and doctoral candidate in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law; Nick Seaver, assistant professor in Tufts University’s Department of Anthropology; and Adriana de Souza e Silva, associate professor at the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University.

Missed the first Geothink&Learn? Don’t worry you can watch the full webinar below on YouTube. Check out the new Geothink&Learn section on our home page for an archive of all talks and to make sure you don’t miss our upcoming panels and topics.

“These short online webinars—most will be only an hour—are intended to bring together our grant’s co-applicants, partners, collaborators, students and public to learn and share,” Geothink Project Manager Sonja Solomun, said. “We’re really excited to have dynamic panelists for our first two Geothink&Learns this October and November on Pokémon Go and the Future of Open Data. We invite you to register in advance as we publish each monthly webinar on our Web site.”

Talks are planned for each of the upcoming months until the Geothink grant concludes this coming April. The next talk, this November 14, will focus on the future of open data and be convened by Geothink Co-Applicant Peter Johnson, an associate professor in University of Waterloo’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management. It will feature Geothink Partners Jean-Noé Landry, executive director of Open North, and Marcy Burchfield, executive director of the Neptis Foundation; and, Co-Applicants Robinson and Teresa Scassa, a Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa.

Other projects in the final year of the grant include a call for papers (submissions due October 7) for two books that will represent the culimination of much of the grant’s research. The first book will focus on Locating Power & Justice in the Geoweb and the call can be found here. The second will focus on The Future of Open Data and the call can be found here.

Geothink is a five-year partnership research grant funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Composed of 26 researchers and 30 partners, the grant examines the implications of increasing two-way exchanges of locational information between citizens and governments and the way in which technology shapes, and is shaped by, this exchange.


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 Research Gives Inside Look at how Toronto’s Makerspaces are Governed

A McGill University undergraduate has undertaken unique research on the governance of Toronto's Makerspaces as his honours thesis project.

A McGill University undergraduate has undertaken unique research on the governance of Toronto’s Makerspaces as his honours thesis project.

By Drew Bush

Google “Makerspaces” and you might not understand the definition you’re reading. 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, most recently, Canada.

Many are located at libraries where they include tools such as 3D printers, software, and electronics while others include craft and hardware supplies, online sites, tools, and more. People go to these social spaces to build and invent often with expensive, specialized equipment, while teaching and learning from their peers.

In research funded by a McGill University Arts Undergraduate Research Internship Award (ARIA) and Geothink, one student has found a huge variance between the types of spaces found in Toronto. The city’s groups represent what McGill University Undergraduate Jordan Bowden calls a unique Canadian evolution of the Makerspace concept. Many of Canada’s Makerspaces face little formal regulation and differ greatly from their formulations than in other countries, he added.

“My research tries to make the argument that there are sort of intervening factors between the actual desire to make stuff and start a Makerspace and the actual production of the thing,” he says of research he conducted into how 11 different Toronto Makerspaces are governed in the summer of 2015. His work was undertaken with the supervision of Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment. It will constitute his soon-to-be-submitted undergraduate honours thesis.

“It’s interesting because there are so many actors which have emerged in my research that participate,” he added. “Ranging from the local government, which has been involved only in a limited extent in the way that they fund maker events. Like there’s a big festival called the maker festival. And there’s also more formal like funding agencies. But it’s interesting they only fund very particular aspects of Makerspaces. So they’re only interested in more entrepreneurship focused endeavours versus artists.”

One of the main differences in the Toronto Makerspaces where Bowden conducted his interviews was the manner in which they were governed. At first, he focused his research on looking at the way formal provincial or federal agencies regulate what Makerspaces can build or how much noise they might make. But he didn’t find any evidence of the province or federal government regulating these spaces.

Bowden also believed he’d be able to interview a wide number of people and groups. But that didn’t pan out during the summer he spent observing different Makerspaces around the city and going to maker related events. What he found instead was a need for longer more in-depth interviews with fewer groups that possessed a wide variety of organizational structures. These interviews make up the core of his thesis research and include non-profit boards, for profit companies, groups of artists, local library groups, and spaces run by the government.

“Governance matters, [and] a wide variety of actors, including nonhuman, play a role in the governance system,” Bowden said of the Makerspaces he examined. Interestingly, the idea of governance within these spaces also varies greatly, he added.

“I use the term a lot in the paper, urban governance systems,” Bowden said. Such governance systems can shape a Makerspace’s existance and what people actually make, he added. There are a multitude of factors which restrict or enable what makers create in the space, like noise, tools, or the organizational factors.

Bowden has personal experience with such intervening factors. He’s been involved in the Makerspace community for quite some time, originally out of interest in a corporate project using a 3D printer. It’s led him to believe that there’s not much research right now on the different Makerspaces emerging in the Canadian context. In particular, he says, not much has been written on the differing contexts and mechanisms by which they’re governed.

“It’s been a year long project, which is actually a bit more extensive than the usual honours theses are,” he said. “It’s been great because I’ve been able to do field research which a lot of people wouldn’t do for undergrad thesis. Including interviews. So it’s really been a really great experience for me in terms of getting a good feel for research and doing field research as well.”

Find out more about Makerspaces and how Bowden conducted his research in Geothoughts Podcast 10: Governing Makerspaces in Toronto with Jordan Bowden.

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.

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.


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.

Canada Action Plan on Open Government 2.0: Much Still To Do?


Canada recently completed their public consultation on Open Government (Photo source).

By Drew Bush


For the savvy traveller headed over Canada’s border this holiday season, Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2.0 holds promise. A visit to the site in December 2014 yielded a multi-media list of steps to follow when travelling abroad and even an iOS “Travel Smart” application.

Drafted after a June 2013 G8 Summit, Canada’s plan results from agreements it made when it signed on to the summit’s Open Data Charter that lays the foundation for usage of open data to promote best government practice.

As a result, Canadians can now get online help with more than just travel. Ever wanted to know how much tax money you spend on government contracts? Or need information on the fuel consumption of a car you might buy?

The goal of the 65 nations committed to these plans is to increase government transparency and accountability, encourage citizen engagement, and stimulate innovation and economic opportunities.


Making this type of data more freely available fits with a long tradition in Canada. When the country began participating in the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in September 2011, it committed to making open data (or machine readable, freely used, re-used and redistributed data) open to anyone able to attribute and share it.

Applications of Web 2.0 technologies and social media allow for these types of interactions online with information, datasets and records. In fact, many modern computer programs incorporate Application Programming Interfaces (or APIs) to gain access to datasets for users.

The Open Data Charter recognizes the central role open data plays in improving governance and stimulating innovation in data-driven products and services. It endorses the principle of open by default, an idea also supported by U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2013 Executive Order on open data.

The drafting of the Charter and Obama’s order have elicited praise but also criticism. As Rufus Pollock, Founder of the Open Knowledge Foundation, wrote on his foundation’s blog, “there is still much for the G8, and other countries, to do.” In particular, the early results from an Open Data Census in July 2013 show that G8 countries have a long way to go in opening up essential data.

User Generated Input

Making data and information more available to Canadians isn’t the only goal of the plan. Open government is increasingly becoming a positive force for unity and international cooperation, according to Canada’s President of the Treasury Board, Tony Clement, in his statement “About Open Government”. He claims that open data makes government “more open, accessible, and responsive” by harnessing the “collective ingenuity, drive, and imagination of its people.”

In Canada, this means finding a way for citizens to engage in a two-way dialogue and even contribute datasets. In 2014, the Canadian Open Data Experience appathon again brought together government, industry, academia, and the public to mash up, reuse and remix federal government data. Events like these and communities the plan encourages around interest areas like maps, labour and law help encourage the development of useful, effective applications that use government data.

Short History of Open Government in Canada

  • The Open Government Partnership formally launched on September 20, 2011 when eight founding governments (Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States) endorsed the Open Government Declaration, and announced their country action plans. Canada joined the partnership later that year.
  • On March 18, 2011, the Government of Canada announced its commitment to an open government initiative that focuses on three areas: 1. Making information such as records and activity more easily accessible; 2. Making raw data available in machine-readable formats to citizens, governments, and non-profit/private sector organizations; 3) Giving citizens an opportunity for dialogue on federal policies.
  • In 2011 the Government of Canada launched an Open Data Portal – data.gc.ca – which now has more than 272,000 datasets from 20 departments and which has already resulted in over 100,000 dataset downloads since its launch.
  • All government departments began publishing summaries of completed Access to Information (ATI) requests 2012 monthly on their Web sites.
  • In 2012, the Government of Canada issued its enhanced Values and Ethics Code of conduct for all public officials.
  • A 2013 Government of Canada Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant asks ‘How the Geospatial Web 2.0 is Reshaping Government-Citizen Interactions.’ GeoThink now includes 13 team members and 36 collaborators and partners.

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.