This is a transformative moment for cities in Canada
Cities are the wellspring of solutions
Cities are increasingly the home of humanity, heralding the Urbanocene Epoch. According to the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, globally, cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time, reports Citiscope, “some of the most promising low-carbon innovations are happening in cities. From efforts aimed at boosting walking, biking and transit to promoting energy efficiency, many mayors have been aggressive about finding ways to squeeze carbon out of their cities” (Scruggs, 2017). Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, has described cities as going through a transition écologique. But, crucially, it is not only a green transformation. The acclaimed social urbanismof Medellin and countless other social innovations around the world attest to the need for cities to also focus on social inclusion, on the civic realm, on re-imagining the urban commons.
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), cities are the critical places to realize the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Indeed, SDG 11 is dedicated to achieving urban sustainability. In the midst of gathering political turmoil, extremism and social unrest around the world, now — perhaps more than ever — people are looking to Canada as a source of inspiration, including to our cities.
Cities are central to our collective future, not least because more than 80% of Canadians (29 million) call them home. Globally, Canadian cities are regularly found among the top on lists for liveability, social and technological innovation, green policies, safety and bike-friendliness (e.g. by The Economist, Intelligent Communities Forum, Wired). Scorecards aside however, we have a long way to go. Inequality is rising, our infrastructure is deteriorating, and our municipalities have less control over their destinies than many of our international counterparts.
But there is a new dynamic movement linking city builders and social innovators. Multiple strands of initiatives are converging, such as:
- collective impact approaches (from Civic Action in Toronto to Centraide’s Collective Impact Project in Montreal, to Vibrant Communities-Cities Reducing Poverty network);
- experimentation platforms (e.g. City Studio Vancouver, Civic Innovation Calgary, Co*Lab in Halifax, and 100 in 1 Day in Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, Hamilton, London and Ottawa);
- intercultural community learning (at the Collingwood Neighbourhood House in Vancouver); and
- repurposing of civic assets (such as at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Worksand Montreal’s Salon 1861).
Collectively they bring renewed energy and creativity to how we intentionally shape our urban communities to be more sustainable, more liveable, more socially inclusive and thereby more conducive to the ongoing generation of vital social and cultural capital.
Over the next decade in Canada, governments and the private sector will make investments on an unprecedented scale in civic infrastructures. Upwards of $750 billion will be invested in cities by all levels of government, and the private sector will then leverage with a further 7x multiple, building office towers, retail shops, condominiums and homes. This is an opportunity to ensure that Canadian cities continue to be among the safest, most inclusive and economically successful in the world. As a catalyst to help drive innovation, the federal government will invest $300 million in the Smart Cities Challenge (part of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Communities and Impact Canada). Additionally, investments are being made by Sustainable Development Technology Canada ($400 million); Business Development Canada ($600 million); the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and others, to help develop a culture of innovation in our cities. Simply put, we are at a transformative moment in how we imagine, plan, design and collectively co-produce our cities. We must use this transformational moment to our collective advantage — to ensure that we make the Canadian cities of tomorrow great places to live, work and play — where all of our residents can flourish.
Challenge: We lack the collaborative infrastructure needed to harness momentum for transformative change
In order to harness this unprecedented moment to create regenerative, equitable and inclusive cities that can better serve the increasingly diverse generations to come, we need to rapidly scale Canada’s culture of innovation. Deepening our culture of innovation will require far more collaboration across sectors and between cities. We need an effective collaborative infrastructure to build partnerships and move to action, addressing complex problems holistically.
Scaling the innovation culture
Because cities are complex social-ecological-technological systems where actors from multiple sectors interact, we need a systems approach if our cities are to rise to the challenges of our time, such as increasing inequality, climate change, and growing aspirations of people to have agency in creating desired change (Bai et al, 2016). Possibilities for systemic transformation towards inclusive urban innovation are opening to cities that are harnessing people’s collective energy to think, listen and act. The UK’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts calls this embedded citizen participation and gives the now classic example of participatory budgeting (PB) in Porto Alegre, Brazil (Devaney et al, 2017). In Canada, Toronto, Montreal, Guelph and Vancouver are trying PB. New narratives about what cities can become are being made visible through experimentation with processes such as PB, creative place-making and community capacity building (Engle, 2016).
However, we currently lack the collaborative infrastructure needed to enable citywide systems thinking and working that would catalyze change toward inclusive, scaled urban innovation while building the low-carbon economy and creating equitable cities that invite embedded citizen participation in the co-creation of our future cities.
Such a collaborative infrastructure for creating the cities of the future is needed not only to finance and build better physical infrastructure, but also to enable building better social infrastructure, by addressing questions such as: How will reconciliation be manifest in cities, where more than half of Indigenous people now live? What does belonging look like? How can cities constructively dialogue and learn from each other when French-English language and cultural barriers stand in the way? How can we reverse rather than continually growing the trend toward greater socio-economic inequality? What regulatory and governance innovations are needed to generate more equitably distributed value and build our cities as a commons?
In contrast to the UK (e.g. Nesta and Future Cities Catapult), Europe (e.g. URBACT, LabGov) and the US (e.g. Living Cities and What Works Cities), Canada lacks an enabling collaborative platform for such activity. It was with this in mind that the McConnell Foundation made a grant to Evergreen in 2016 to design and test interest in a national initiative to integrate the efforts of governments, foundations, universities, communities and private sector partners in shaping the future of Canadian cities. McConnell made a grant to la Maison de l’innovation sociale (MIS) to focus on the Quebec ecosystem.
Evergreen, MIS and partners are pursuing complementary strategies: construction of a Future Cities Centre at the Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto to be completed in 2018, with working, training, meeting and exhibit space; testing a transitory urbanism approach in Montreal through Villes d’avenir and Laboratoire transitoire; and the set up of Future Cities Canada, a platform to develop, disseminate and scale innovative approaches to city building across Canada and beyond.
Opportunity: By catalyzing effective networks of people, ideas, platforms and innovations we can create the cities of the future that we want and need
The emerging innovation paradigm
Building on emergent themes, discourses and practices such as Networked Cities, Participatory City, City as a Commons, Sharing Cities, and open smart cities, Canada’s success as a nation will be in part determined by how well we pursue innovation in our cities. The twenty-first century confronts twin, existential and mutually reinforcing challenges: social inequality and climate change. With urban communities accounting for 60% of our energy use and over half of our greenhouse gas emissions, the frontlines for co-creating solutions are in our cities.
One, but not the only answer to social inequality and climate change, is innovation, building on the wide range of existing strong but disconnected innovation assets that are largely dispersed, fragmented and constrained to small-scale application. One immediate challenge is that social and environmental challenges are not separate but are interlinked. Another one is that most Canadians see innovation as ‘smart’ technology and business innovation, a perspective reinforced in the 2017 federal budget. But technological innovation (relying on STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and business innovation (like new business models and service platforms) is only part of the innovation equation. The third leg of the innovation stool is social innovation. In the case of cities this is alternatively referred to as urban innovation, community innovation, or civic innovation.
Social innovations look at how people, whether meeting environmental needs like a reduced environmental footprint, or social needs like tackling poverty, inequality and social isolation or low educational attainment rates, collaborate to co-produce change. While social innovations may start as small-scale prototypes, their ultimate goal is catalyzing system change through projects like Newcomer Kitchen in Toronto, which helps Syrian refugee women to cook a weekly meal in the group’s kitchen and Manitoba Green Retrofit, a social enterprise that employs residents who face labour market barriers to carry out affordable and energy efficient renovation services. The aim is both social inclusion and scalability: embracing difference and a sense of belonging, and adapting, expanding and deepening innovations in cities around the world.
Future Cities: Reimagining how we live together
Future Cities Canada will provide a framework for collaborative innovation to accelerate and scale low-carbon, inclusive, equitable cities by developing our collaborative infrastructure. It will aim to help build the knowledge, policy, networks and actions to catalyze innovation in how we invest in, govern and engage in the future of our cities. The design of Future Cities reflects outcomes of the work under¬taken to develop a national civic commons strategy, which explored the potential to rethink cities with an emphasis on strategic civic assets and ways that we can increase equality through shared ownership and governance models and redistributive value capture. Future Cities draws inspiration from experiences across Canada, and from international ‘change network’ platforms and movements, such as Living Cities, Bloomberg Philanthropies (and What Works Cities), 100 Resilient Cities, URBACT, Participatory City, Reimagining the Civic Commons, Fab Cityand the Right to the City. These cross-scalar and cross-sectoral initiatives achieve results by combin¬ing urban innovation with place-based, community capacity building.
In particular, Future Cities is being designed to leverage emerging opportunities embedded in the Government of Canada’s programs, such as the Smart Cities Challenge and the Super Cluster Competition, as well as the FCM Innovation Network of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The Government of Canada is also committed to co-create a Social Innovation and Social Finance Strategy (in development) with members of a Steering Group to better support community groups in addressing social problems.
Future Cities represents a natural extension of the McConnell Foundation’s Cities for People initiative, and will build a broader collaborative platform with a range of partners, including Evergreen, Community Foundations of Canada, and Montreal’s Maison de l’innovation sociale while inviting many others to engage through a variety of projects, activities, events and knowledge exchange and creation opportunities. Substantively, Future Cities will join the discourses and practices of the ‘City as a Commons’ (Gillis, 2017; Foster & Iaionesh, 2016; Foster, 2016), ’Sharing Cities’ (McLaren & Agyeman, 2015), ‘Smart Cities’ (McConnell Foundation, 2017) and the Human(e) Revolution (Johar, 2017) to develop the cities of the future that we want and need — that is, cities that invest themselves in practices and policies of inclusion, innovation, reconciliation and resilience.
Future Cities brings together partners from the private sector, academia, government and civil society in an interplay of labs (such as Urban resilience governance lab and échoFab Québec), hubs (such as Impact Hub Ottawa) and learning networks (such as Learning Network Ontario) to collectively focus on four innovation pillars: capital, infrastructure, governance and participation.
While the priorities and programs are currently in the development phase, we anticipate the following types of activities in the first years of Future Cities:
Capital Innovation: Developing impact investments that attract capital to projects and programs that foster equity, strengthen the commons and advance low-carbon strategies to better enable social, economic and climate change resilience in the years ahead. Possibilities include a national civic assets development corporation, a low-carbon energy retrofit fund within the planned Canada Infrastructure Bank, procurement policy innovation to help create market pools for innovations born in Canada through Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Business Development Bank of Canada, Ontario Centres of Excellence and Alberta Innovates, and collective funds for social purpose real estate. Examples of these include: The Civic Commons(such as Salon 1861, Montreal’s Ateliers créatifs and Toronto’s Artscape), Green Bank programs in the US (New York, Connecticut) and the UK, and the University of Winnipeg’s Community Renewal Corporation, an outstanding example of a not-for-profit organization that incents environmental, social, economic and cultural innovation through capital budget and procurement resources. Their work is also central to developing multi-sectoral partnerships to support the development of a sustainable community.
Infrastructure Innovation: Improving design and planning for green and social infrastructure in cities, using open data policies and new technologies of artificial intelligence for social good and virtual reality, such as for community-based partnerships to repurpose and program civic assets and apartment towers (example models: Fab City, Amsterdam Smart City and Blox).
Governance Innovation: Developing and scaling new governance models for civic assets, public space and neighbourhood revitalization that enable public/private/people/philanthropic partnerships (example models: Centraide’s Collective Impact Project, Winnipeg Promise, Envision Nova Scotia).
Participation Innovation: Testing new modes of civic participation that include less-heard voices, and that shift the context within which traditional problem solving, investment, and community action take place (example projects: participatory / citizen budgeting, civic tech tools, 100 in 1 day, Vancouver’s 30 Network, We Are Cities, Transforme ta ville and the Montreal Listening Platform).
Future Cities Hubs: focused on strengths, connected for learning and resilience
A hub network will improve Canada’s capacity for inclusive innovation. City-based hubs will operate both autonomously and interdependently, deepening specialized expertise and collaborating in research, coaching and training activity. Hubs will provide evidence-based recommendations to policy makers, elected officials, academics, residents and practitioners. One goal is to expand these efforts in line with the Innovation superclusters initiative (ISI) of the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.
The Toronto-based Hub — the Future Cities Centre at the Evergreen Brick Works — is under construction in a 53,000-square-foot former kiln with a budget of $16.5 million. The Montreal-based Hub strategy will be led by the Maison de l’innovation sociale in partnership with Cities for People, Entremise, the City of Montreal and others, beginning winter 2018. A Hub strategy will be developed with other cities through existing initiatives and partnerships.
Future Cities Labs: innovation for inclusive growth
Future Cities Labs will develop new approaches to urban challenges through multi-sectoral collaboration. Lab projects might include the design of a national civic assets development corporation to finance the reuse of civic assets, such as empty churches, post offices and factories. The Labs would also focus on social challenges — such as reducing poverty through social procurement, the practice of having public agencies purchase goods and services from minority-owned businesses, for example. Another example is reforming bail and remand procedures to keep Indigenous people from being trapped in the justice system, as Saskatchewan is doing by converting prisons into training schools for low-risk offenders (Huddart, 2017). At a local level, a Lab might incubate Participatory City-style prototypes or set up place-maker spaces to provide access for citizen experimentation and training, such as Montreal’s La Pépinière’s prototype of PEP Académie in 2017.
Future Cities will connect the dots, creating the big picture
A core team will focus initially on developing a Future Cities strategy that creates value for cities and that has a sustainable operating model to support it. Plans on the drafting board include the following:
- An Inclusive Urban Innovation Report Card that provides a status report on performance and trends in cities.
- Urban Innovation Grants and an Awards Program to bring together groups to develop action plans on specific issues or urban problems.
- Future Cities Fellows Network of diverse practitioners and academics to provide capacity building for Future Cities and for the Smart Cities Challenge. This peer network will advance objectives, including through webinars, research and articles in specialist and mass media.
- Future Cities Biennale inspired by the Venice Biennale, this Canadian adaptation will organize an international exposition at the Future Cities Centre to profile inclusive urban innovation projects and initiatives.
For Canada to successfully use innovation to build an inclusive future, we need a new collaborative infrastructure that is designed from the ground up with the participation of all sectors. It must build synergies around the four innovation pillars (participation, governance, infrastructure, capital) and tap into the experiences and knowledge of existing networks like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and sectors such as academia, business, community and civil society organizations. This is called ‘joined-up-thinking’. The old institutional DNA, based on silos is not sufficient to catalyze a new collaborative culture that unlocks systemic change.
City builders also need to recognize that they are shifting the current innovation paradigm wherein innovation is framed primarily as technology and business. The rise of urban and place based innovation reinforces the emerging alignment of innovation policies, expenditures and activities around social (and ecological) impact. This urban approach challenges the assumption that all innovation engenders broad wellbeing. Positive impact requires much greater intentionality in the innovation strategy, and a sustained commitment to changing the rules of the game in ways that contribute to greater equality and regenerative urban development.
Get in touch and share your ideas
Resources: Delve deeper. Here are some recent resources to take you further.
On cities as systems, collaborative infrastructure, anthropocene and urbanocene:
Bai, X., Surveyer, A., Elmqvist, T., Gatzweiler, F.W., Güneralp, B., Parnell, S., Prieur-Richard, A.H., Shrivastava, P., Siri, J.G., Stafford-Smith, M., Toussaint, J.P. & Webb, R. (2016) ‘Defining and advancing a systems approach for sustainable cities.’ Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 23. Available at:
McPhearson, T., Parnell, S., Simon, D., Gaffney, O., Elmqvist, T., Bai, X., Roberts, D. & Revi, A. (2016) Scientists must have a say in the future of cities. Nature Research. Available at:
http://www.nature.com/news/scientists-must-have-a-say-in-the-future-of-cities-1.20760 [Accessed 11/09/2017]
Olsson, P., Moore, M., Westley, F. & McCarthy, D. (2017) ‘The concept of the Anthropocene as a game-changer: A new context for social innovation and transformations to sustainability.’ Ecology and Society 22(2),31. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-09310-220231 [Accessed 11/09/2017]
Plastrik, P., Taylor, M. & Cleveland, J. (2014) Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact. Island Press.
Strandberg, C. (2017) Maximizing the Capacities of Advanced Education Institutions to Build Social Infrastructure for Canadian Communities. Commissioned by the McConnell Foundation’s RECODE initiative and Simon Fraser University. Available at:
http://www.re-code.ca/system/redactor_assets/documents/298/SI-PAPER-FINAL-may25.pdf [Accessed 11/09/2017]
West, G. B. (2017) Scale: the universal laws of growth, innovation, sustainability, and the pace of life in organisms, cities, economies, and companies. Penguin.
On Future Cities thinking: the City as a Commons, Sharing Cities, Smart Cities, inclusive urban innovation
Besson, R. (2017) How Madrid’s residents are using open-source urban planning to create shared spaces — and build democracy. The Conversation. Available at: https://theconversation.com/how-madrids-residents-are-using-open-source-urban-planning-to-create-shared-spaces-and-build-democracy-79717 [Accessed 11/09/2017]
Devaney, C., Shafique, A. & Grinsted, S. (2017) Citizens and Inclusive Growth. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts. Available at: https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/reports/rsa_citizens-and-inclusive-growth-report.pdf [Accessed 11/09/2017]
Engle, J. (2016) Cities as Places of Transformation. Available at:
http://citiesforpeople.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Jayne-McGill-Presentation.pdf [Accessed 11/09/2017]
Foster, S. (2016) The Co-City: From the tragedy to the comedy of the urban commons. Available at:
https://www.thenatureofcities.com/2016/11/02/the-co-city-from-the-tragedy-to-the-comedy-of-the-urban-commons/ [Accessed 11/09/2017]
Foster, S. & Iaionesh, C. (2016) ‘The City as a Commons.’ Yale Law & Policy Review, 34 (2). Available at:
http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1698&context=ylpr [Accessed 11/09/2017]
Gillis, A. (2017) Cities as a Commons: Sharing vision, resources and power. McConnell Foundation. Available at:
https://mcconnellfoundation.ca/cities-as-a-commons-sharing-vision-resources-and-power/ [Accessed 11/09/2017]
Huddart, S. (2017) Seven Years On and Seven Years Out: Revisiting “Patterns, Principles and Practices in Social Innovation”. The Philanthropist. Available at: https://thephilanthropist.ca/2017/04/seven-years-on-and-seven-years-out-revisiting-patterns-principles-and-practices-in-social-innovation/[Accessed 11/09/2017]
Johar, I. (2017) The Human(e) Revolution. Dark Matter Laboratories. Available at: https://provocations.darkmatterlabs.org/the-human-e-revolution-267022d76c71 [Accessed 11/09/2017]
Mazzucato, M. (2017) Mission-Oriented Innovation Policy: Challenges and Opportunities, published by The RSA in partnership with UCL Institute for Innovation with Public Purpose. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts. Available at:
McConnell Foundation (2017) Smart Cities Resources. Available at:
https://mcconnellfoundation.ca/report/smart-cities-resources/ [Accessed 11/09/2017]
McLaren, D. & Agyeman, J. (2016) Sharing Cities: A case for truly smart and sustainable cities. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Ratti, C. & Claudel, M. (2016) City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life. Yale University Press.
Scruggs, G. (2017) Explainer: What is the Paris Agreement on climate change and what does it mean for cities? Citiscope. Available at: http://citiscope.org/story/2017/explainer-what-paris-agreement-climate-change-and-what-does-it-mean-cities [Accessed 11/09/2017]
About the authors:
Julian Agyeman is Professor at Tufts University, Visiting Professor at McGill University School of Urban Planning and Cities for People Fellow at the McConnell Foundation.
Jayne Engle is Program Director and Lead of Cities for People at the McConnell Foundation and Adjunct Professor at McGill University School of Urban Planning.
Tim Draimin is Senior Advisor, McConnell Foundation, and former Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation.
We thank the following colleagues for comments and contributions:
Geoff Cape, Robert Plitt, Patrick Dubé, Mark Cabaj, Ray Tomalty, Stephen Huddart, Laurence Miall, Darcy Riddell, Jorge Garza.