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A girl on a swing overlooking a city.

March 21, 2018

Q&A with Dr. Jayne Engle on how Canada can lead the way in transforming cities for the better

Inclusive and meaningful community engagement has always been a driving force behind Dr. Jayne Engle’s work. As head of Cities for People at McConnell Foundation in Montreal, she bridges innovative community action with policy and systems change. She is bringing her passion and experience in participatory city planning, urban policy innovation, collaborative governance and social change to Future Cities Canada to help reimagine cities for the better. Here, she shares how Canada can be a global leader by enabling freedom for people to create their cities together.

FCC: What was the moment that ignited your passion for creating cities that are more “people-centred?” 

JE: Working in real estate, adaptive reuse and redevelopment in Philadelphia at the start of my career gave me an understanding of the many complexities in how multiple layers of systems in cities work. It was at that time when I witnessed on my daily walks to work far too many people living in desperate and inhumane conditions. I felt strongly that it didn’t have to be this way – that this injustice was unacceptable. At the end of the day, the living conditions of people are what matter most and the way in which we think and build cities plays a crucial role in how we meet the needs of society. This is what motivated me to get into city planning. Tying it to my work, I saw that there was a critical role for civic assets — and what we’re now calling the ‘urban commons’ — to play in rethinking cities of tomorrow.

A headshot of Jayne Engle.

FCC: What can Canadian cities offer as a source of inspiration on how to transform cities for the benefit for all?

 JE: We have so much to build on here in Canada.

In Montreal, for example, there is a strong culture of solidarity and of creative entrepreneurship, which we’re currently leveraging to build a new ‘smart commons’ initiative that brings together urban commons values and models of ownership and experimentation together with smart cities technologies. There are also movements of artificial intelligence for social good, as well as ‘Indigenizing Montreal’.  Winnipeg as well is becoming a beacon as a ‘city of reconciliation’ with important initiatives underway, such as Winnipeg Boldness.

Vancouver is a leader on many fronts. Its Greenest City work is central to the way the city is planned, built and thought about. It also has some fantastic innovations like City Studio, a unique city, university, community, collaboration that brings value to young people through their education and acts somewhat like a civic lab for the city government to test out new ways of working.

Toronto is a fast-growing global and diverse city with assets like Evergreen Brick Works, one of the country’s great post-industrial adaptive reuse projects and the Centre for Social Innovation. The new Sidewalk Toronto project could potentially provide extraordinary new technological innovation to set Toronto apart on a world stage, however, it will be critical to set up robust regulatory innovation, such as a regulatory experimentation ’sandbox’, to ensure that the project is carried out for the common good, in the public interest, and in ways that serve to reduce the rapidly growing inequality in Toronto.

FCC: What is the biggest challenge for Canadian cities? 

JE:  Research has shown that more technologically innovative cities are also more unequal cities. It’s more important than ever to look at how cities can be more innovative and increasingly equal at the same time. Addressing this challenge is at the core of Cities for People and Future Cities Canada’s work. There is a great need to rapidly scale the culture of innovation in cities, and social innovation has to be foundational to that or inequality will continue to increase.

FCC: There is much discussion in Canada on how to rethink the ‘Smart City.’ What do you see at the heart of the smart city movement? 

JE: People must be at the centre of innovation. This means ensuring ‘inclusive urban innovation’ — meaning both socially inclusive, as well as inclusive of other kinds of innovation — such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), and importantly, regulatory innovation.

All levels of government need not only to innovate but to accelerate innovation. The current way we make regulations and govern is not able to keep up with the pace of change. By accelerating civic innovation, we enable regulatory experimentation that allows for prototyping, new approaches, and new policies that will the build an evidence base for specific policy changes. This way we can understand what works well, less well and can adapt these more broadly.

We also need to innovate in how we organize and govern ourselves. One of the reasons Future Cities Canada was created was that we lack adequate structures to respond to the challenges we face. We need multi-sector collaborative partnerships – or what we call collaborative infrastructure – to more effectively respond to the challenges of our time.

Finally, new forms of civic engagement are a must to give people freedom to act and create their cities to improve their living environments and public realm.

FCC: Future Cities Canada champions collaborations to foster inclusive, innovative and resilient cities. Are there particular projects that motivate you?

JE: We expect massive change in our cities on multiple levels during the course of this century and the scenario planning project,’ Our Urban Futures’ will get to the heart of visualizing future cities, realizing their potential, and reimagining what our cities can be like in the future. We’ll be looking at how we expect them to grow and change and how the decisions we make collectively will affect how we live together in our cities. It takes collective intelligence and collective action to realize the urban futures that we want and need.  I am also excited about the more boring stuff — the Urban Data Strategy, Capital Innovation and Governance Innovation.  We’re working with some decidedly un-boring partners on these — including Dark Matter Laboratories, MaRS and Open North. These fundamentals are crucial for how we adapt our organization of governance and society and meet the growing challenges we face – particularly inequality and climate change.

On the ground, we have an opportunity to provide enabling environments in which people can make their cities together, and 100In1Day — happening in cities across Canada this June — can become a platform for how we collectively recreate our cities over time. I think it’s an excellent way for cities to experiment and make ideas and possibilities more visible in tangible ways so that we can create new narratives about what cities can be.