“3 things for Calgary”: how a Canadian mayor brought citizens into government

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi in 2011. Image: Getty.

Around England, new mayors of various political creeds are settling into their new roles, and figuring out how to start making their mark. As they do so, they would be well served to look across the Atlantic for inspiration.

But they should raise their eye line a little beyond the big-money mayoral news stories of recent years in New York and so on. Instead they should level their gaze on a little grassroots campaign established by Naheed Nenshi, the mayor of Calgary, in the Canadian province of Alberta.

Nenshi’s rise is a political case study worth understanding for many reasons: an ex-McKinsey consultant, community organiser and professor of non-profit management, he is the first Muslim mayor of a North American city, an independent who rejected both left (red) and right (blue) to create his own grassroots “purple revolution” election campaign.

His rise from obscurity at the start of the 2010 campaign was meteoric: polling at 8 per cent just a month before the election, he went on to mayoralty with 39 per cent of the vote. In 2013, he was re-elected with an astonishing 74 per cent. He has clearly got quite a lot right.

The thing I want to focus on, though, is a campaign Nenshi and his team launched a few months after taking office. It costs them less than C$10,000 a year (a little under £6,000) to run; and Nenshi himself sees it as core to the reinvigoration of the city of Calgary which he is so proud to have been part of.

It’s called “3 Things for Calgary”, and it’s as simple as it sounds: an invocation to every citizen to do three things for their city, and share them with one another. By carrying around a big green foam ‘3’ with him wherever he goes, what Nenshi has done in essence is to create a 21st century, Facebook-friendly, meme version of JFK’s famous invocation.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

-JFK inaugural address, January 1961

The keys to the campaign’s success are Nenshi’s tone when he talks about it, and his energy in supporting it. It’s not about preaching or requiring action; rather, it’s about celebrating what he knows full well people are already doing for each other, for their communities, and for the city as a whole, but maybe keeping to themselves. He’s giving them permission and validation both to shout about it and to do just a little bit more.

This openness is worth emphasising: it’s not about specific actions dictated or arranged by the city, but about whatever each individual is doing and wants to do. As Nenshi says, “It’s about creating an ongoing movement and motivation for citizenship, based on the understanding that citizenship is nothing to do with the piece of paper that you may or may not have from the government: it has to do with your participation.”

The campaign started small, focusing at first on engaging the city’s schoolchildren, and then moving onto their parents. This set the tone for creative response and sharing of the actions and pledges – which has continued, as a quick look at the website reveals – and was fuelled by tireless personal support from Nenshi himself. “We go out of our way,” he says, “to celebrate people who are doing good things in our community, and we take a giant foam ‘3’ along with us. It’s pretty much as simple as that.”

That’s underplaying it a little – there are big piles of pin badges involved as well – but not much. “This campaign puts both permission and expectation in the hands of the citizen. What do you care about, and what needs to be done? You do what you can about it, and we’ll come support you and draw attention to it.”

The response to a lamentation that there are no festivals in the suburbs because they all happen in the city centre is a perfect case study: the mayor’s response was, “Start one then, and invite me.” Nenshi attended (with his ‘3’), so did the press, and the local festival scene soon hit a rich vein of energy.

Of course, there are issues that need bigger interventions. The campaign is not an urban panacea, and Nenshi and his team would be the first to say that there are many big, entrenched, systemic issues that they’re working on that go way beyond its direct reach.

But the genius of “3 Things For Calgary” is that it creates an entirely different context for these efforts. At a fundamental level it completely changes the conversation between administration and citizens, dissolving the division between “us and them” and saying “let’s make this place better together.” Power is shared, and channelled back through the people, who feel enabled, validated and motivated – not (under)served.

Nenshi and his team have no qualms about other cities copying the campaign; indeed, they’re actively encouraging it, this year dedicating themselves to supporting “3 Things For Canada” in celebration of the nation’s 150th anniversary. With the price of change limited to a few thousand pounds, some time spent with constituents, and a few big foam ‘3’s, here’s hoping some of England’s new mayors are listening.

Jon Alexander is a partner at the New Citizenship Project. He tweets as @jonjalex.


Smart cities need to be more human, so we’re creating Sims-style virtual worlds

The Sims 2 on show in 2005. Image: Getty.

Huge quantities of networked sensors have appeared in cities across the world in recent years. These include cameras and sensors that count the number of passers by, devices to sense air quality, traffic flow detectors, and even bee hive monitors. There are also large amounts of information about how people use cities on social media services such as Twitter and foursquare.

Citizens are even making their own sensors – often using smart phones – to monitor their environment and share the information with others; for example, crowd-sourced noise pollution maps are becoming popular. All this information can be used by city leaders to create policies, with the aim of making cities “smarter” and more sustainable.

But these data only tell half the story. While sensors can provide a rich picture of the physical city, they don’t tell us much about the social city: how people move around and use the spaces, what they think about their cities, why they prefer some areas over others, and so on. For instance, while sensors can collect data from travel cards to measure how many people travel into a city every day, they cannot reveal the purpose of their trip, or their experience of the city.

With a better understanding of both social and physical data, researchers could begin to answer tough questions about why some communities end up segregated, how areas become deprived, and where traffic congestion is likely to occur.

Difficult questions

Determining how and why such patterns will emerge is extremely difficult. Traffic congestion happens as a result of personal decisions about how to get from A to B, based on factors such as your stage of life, your distance from the workplace, school or shops, your level of income, your knowledge of the roads and so on.

Congestion can build locally at pinch points, placing certain sections of the city’s transport networks under severe strain. This can lead to high levels of air pollution, which in turn has a severe impact on the health of the population. For city leaders, the big question is, which actions – imposing congestion charges, pedestrianising areas or improving local infrastructure – would lead to the biggest improvements in both congestion, and public health.

We know where – but why? Image: Worldoflard/Flickr/creative commons.

The irony is, although modern technology has the power to collect vast amounts of data, it doesn’t always provide the means to analyse it. This means that scientists don’t have the tools they need to understand how different factors influence the way cities function and grow. Here, the technique of agent-based modelling could come to the rescue.

The simulated city

Agent-based modelling is a type of computer simulation, which models the behaviour of individual people as they move around and interact inside a virtual world. An agent-based model of a city could include virtual commuters, pedestrians, taxi drivers, shoppers and so on. Each of these individuals has their own characteristics and “rules”, programmed by researchers, based on theories and data about how people behave.

After combining vast urban datasets with an agent-based model of people, scientists will have the capacity to tweak and re-run the model, until they detect the phenomena they’re wanting to study – whether it’s traffic jams or social segregation. When they eventually get the model right, they’ll be able to look back on the characteristics and rules of their virtual citizens, to better understand why some of these problems emerge, and hopefully begin to find ways to resolve them.

For example, scientists might use urban data in an agent-based model to better understand the characteristics of the people who contribute to traffic jams – where they have come from, why they are travelling, what other modes of transport they might be willing to take. From there, they might be able to identify some effective ways of encouraging people to take different routes or modes of transport.

Seeing the future

Also, if the model works well in the present time, then it might be able to produce short-term forecasts. This would allow scientists to develop ways of reacting to changes in cities, in real time. Using live urban data to simulate the city in real-time could help to inform the managers of key services during periods of major disruption, such as severe weather, infrastructure failure or evacuation.

Using real-time data adds another layer of complexity. But fortunately, other scientific disciplines have also been making advances in this area. Over decades, the field of meteorology has developed cutting-edge mathematical methods, which allow their weather and climate models to respond to new weather data, as they arise in real time.

The ConversationThere’s a lot more work to be done before these methods from meteorology can be adapted to work for agent-based models of cities. But if they’re successful, these advancements will allow scientists to build city simulations which are driven by people - and not just the data they produce.

Nick Malleson, Associate Professor of Geographical Information Systems, University of Leeds and Alison Heppenstall, Professor in Geocomputation, University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.