Engaging CBRM to reinvent itself

“Around the world there are cities in desperate need of rejuvenation and transformation. Elected officials are scrambling to equip their cities for the 21st century, talking about creating ‘open’, ‘networked’, and ‘smart’ cities.”

So writes social media commentator Don Tapscott in a blog post titled “Engaging the Population of a City to Reinvent Itself”. And not just elected officials, but also people like yours truly who are running for municipal council. For example, see my recent post: Access to Information & ‘Open Government’.

Tapscott continues:

“Cities need new strategies for meeting [their] challenges, and fortunately, the Internet and new digital tools provide a low-cost and effective way of doing this. These tools allow citizens to contribute ideas to the decision-making process and be engaged in public life. Residents can offer their wisdom and enthusiasm on an ongoing basis. When citizens become active, good things happen. People learn from one another. Initiatives get catalyzed.”

An example he gives is Bogota, Columbia, which recently elected a new mayor. The local Chamber of Commerce led the charge on increasing community engagement. Here’s what the story would look like if you simply swapped CBRM for Bogota:

“With a municipal election scheduled for the end of October the Chamber saw an opportunity to challenge the mayoral candidates with ideas and proposals to fix the city. But rather than doing the back room lobbying that characterizes municipal politics, it took a different approach. It decided to engage the citizens of [CBRM] in a process to reinvent their city.”

“…It was an extraordinary exercise that is rich with lessons for anyone wanting to help their own city. The goal was to encourage local businesses, community leaders and citizens to become involved in the [CBRM’s] affairs.”

“The process involved a mix of online and local face-to-face initiatives. The Chamber wanted voters to help set the agenda for the new mayor and government. However this was not simply about asking the candidates to adopt platitudes about building a better, more open city. Many of the proposals were not only fresh, they had teeth.”

Or, as Fr Jimmy Tompkins put it, and as I quoted him in my Ideas talk, the ideas “had legs”.

The Chamber was able to involve more than 10,000 citizens. Its 26 roundtables attracted 1,800 citizen, business and student leaders. During the sessions participants made 1,600 proposals and 1,700 commitments towards the city. More than 8,000 people filled out the virtual and face-to-face surveys.

(Tapscott will elaborate on the results in a future blog post.)

Toward Collaborative Local Politics

Published in The Cape Breton Post comment section (print only) on Monday, March 5, 2012

CBRM Mayor John Morgan should seek input from the community on a more regular basis, and with a deeper commitment to giving that input its full due. He should help open the municipal government’s policy development and review processes to make them more participatory, transparent, and above all, inclusive. And he should re-imagine a social role for municipal government.

This was the message a small group of us delivered to Mayor Morgan last week. The meeting was a follow-up to Donnie Calabrese’s “Open Letter”, published first on Facebook and then in the Post. In it, Donnie challenged the Mayor to think outside the equalization box and look to the community for creative alternatives. But the real challenge now falls on us, to bring those creative alternatives forward and put them to the test. So while we’re expecting a lot from the Mayor and his office, we’re also expecting a lot of ourselves — that we will assume more responsibility for co-creating our communities and local economies.

In order for this new conversation to unfold, there must be an open channel of dialogue between the Mayor’s office and the various constituencies that feel they are not being listened to, let alone spoken to. Only then can we work together to achieve our common goal of creating a vibrant community that offers a viable choice to both newcomers and home-grown folks alike.

During the meeting (which included myself, Donnie, and Erika Shea), we acknowledged the cogency of Mayor Morgan’s argument with respect to equalization. But all parties were able to agree that, while equalization fairness is perhaps necessary, it is not sufficient. We therefore can’t afford to pursue it at the exclusion of immigration and diversity, arts and culture, student life and youth engagement, environmental sustainability, and the nurturing of a business climate more conducive to small- and medium-size enterprise.

Judging from some of the responses to Donnie’s letter, the Mayor is not the only one with a blind-spot when it comes to small and varied locally-based initiatives. Many still buy into the false choice between rescue from government and rescue from big industry. Curiously, this dual rescue package is seen as the only hope by both doom and gloom pessimists and “turned the corner” optimists alike. But both offer false hope.

We need evidence-based analysis from our best and brightest, which our Mayor is. But it must be combined with innovative and practical solutions, which the equalization legal battle is not.

Instead we need our leaders to be inspired by a constructive alternative vision, like the kind Fr Jimmy Tompkins and Fr Moses Coady sought to establish during the Antigonish Movement. Leadership is tricky now just as it was then. What does it mean in a 21st-century hyperconnected world, and in a collaborative setting like the one alluded to above? And how can it help people in Cape Breton achieve Coady’s vision of becoming, as he titled his book, ‘Masters of Their Own Destiny’?

Whatever shape it takes, collaborative community-based leadership requires of us that we educate ourselves and organize ourselves. A well known example of the Antigonish Movement’s effort to educate and organize was the People’s School, established in 1921 at St Francis Xavier University. Its goals were, I believe, ones we can identify with today, almost a hundred years later:

  • to deal pragmatically and head-on with the challenges facing Cape Breton;
  • to liberate, and put to good use, the creative energies of the people; and
  • to inspire them to work together for their common good.

This is not an argument for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. CBRM, like every municipality in Canada, has three levels of government, all of which must work together to achieve sustainable prosperity. But an engagement with government at the local level is perhaps the best way of ensuring that the community leads in determining its future.

So roll up your sleeves. There’s a new conversation to be had.

IDEAS: Powered By Passion

I was honoured to be invited to kick off the 2011 season of IDEAS: Powered By Passion series, put on by New Dawn. Modelled as Cape Breton’s version of the TED talks, the events “aim to encourage new thinking through speech and music, by uncovering the passions of our people through the sharing of their stories.”

The series began last year and while purposely flying under the radar nonetheless attracted a sizeable and loyal following with the likes of speeches from Tom Urbaniak, Jim Mustard, Chris Milburn, Annette Wolf, Joella Foulds, Jeanette MacDonald and Gary Walsh.

Marcie MacKay led off the evening with a note-perfect presentation on the ABCS of Building Neighbourhoods, a project focused on improving developmental assets in the community; and Carolyn Lionais delivered her unique blend of hilarious sonic soul-searching.