Thank you imagineCALGARY

This week, I attended an event celebrating ten years of imagineCALGARY. I was a member of the project team that helped develop the city’s long-range urban sustainability plan when I was a planner with the City of Calgary.

It was an especially important moment for me because imagineCALGARY is a major factor in Intelligent Futures coming into existence. After going through a 2-year process that engaged over 18,000 citizens on the future of the city, I was inspired in ways I hadn’t experienced before (or expected when we started). I wanted to take the lessons learned and work with other communities and contexts. These lessons, amongst many others, have informed my career and company ever since.

Former imagineCALGARY Round Table co-chair Ruth Ramsden-Wood shares the experience of building the plan.

The importance of conversation with citizens

The experience of imagineCALGARY (iC) solidified a belief that thoughtful conversation with citizens is never a bad idea. It’s not easy. It’s rarely straightforward. But it always gives new insights and develops new relationships — things that are vital to the process of city-building. Providing the space for citizens to speak to decision-makers and one another gives a chance to see new perspectives that folks hadn’t perhaps thought of before.

A good example is a workshop we delivered during the iC process. We were using the Metroquest tool, which asked participants to decide on different elements of cities — housing, density, transit, etc. When we got to the question of transit investment, this particular workshop was split between status quo and heavily investing in regional transit. When I asked a gentleman why he selected to invest in transit at the highest level, he said:

“I love driving. You’ll never get me out of my car. But having great transit gets lots of people off my road.”

The response received lots of laughter, but it was an important insight that highlighted the relationship between modes of transportation in a way that was much more impactful than if an expert told them in a PowerPoint presentation at the front of the room.

The importance of diversity at the table

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki highlights that one of the key elements of a wise crowd is a diversity of opinion. Often, we gravitate to people, social media feeds and information that confirms our pre-existing opinions (it’s called confirmation bias). Engagement provides the opportunity to expose people to ideas, facts and viewpoints that are different from their own. When that happens, new insights can be gained, and the crowd (the city) becomes wiser.

A great example from iC was the first meeting of my governance working group. We structured these working groups to have diversity built-in. That is, we didn’t have just experts in that system to broaden the perspective of the five working groups we had. Our natural environment expert was very hesitant to join this group, as she felt she was unqualified. In our very first meeting, we were discussing elements of governance and the concept of a voice for the voiceless came up. Our natural environment rep spoke up for the first time in the meeting, saying: “If we’re talking about a voice for the voiceless, then I think the environment has to be part of that consideration as well.” You could see the representatives of big institutions — the Calgary Board of Education, the City of Calgary, the Calgary Health Region — all nod in agreement and emphasized what a great point that was. This different perspective instantly opened the eyes of participants to new ways of thinking as we began our work. That’s the value of diversity in the room.

The other example of connecting with a diversity of folks can be found in a single answer of the 18,000+ responses. One of our questions was: “What do you value about Calgary?” We heard lots of themes that you would expect — close to the mountains, the Bow River, economic opportunity and more. But there was a single answer that sticks with me to this day. A 15-year old responded:

“I value no longer being a child soldier.”

It was only one answer out of tens of thousands, but it provided an incredible perspective on how lucky we are to live where we do, and why we need to keep working at making our city as welcoming to the world as possible.

The importance of having fun

The imagineCALGARY project team was easily one of the best teams I have ever been a part of. Starting with Pat Gordon, our incredible project manager and one of my changemaker heroes, the team was a group of crazy-smart, committed people. Often, colleagues at the City in other departments would come by our project space and say: “You guys are having too much fun!” Yes. Yes, we were.

Reunited with some of the old gang. Clockwise: Jennifer Allford (amazing writer and communications guru); Cheryl De Paoli (Executive Director of the AB Real Estate Foundation); and Pia Novello (office administrator extraordinaire at the City of Calgary).

It was an important lesson learned that having fun and doing great work aren’t mutually exclusive. We have tried to realize this view at Intelligent Futures (see our liquor cabinet for more information).

An unexpected outcome

I could go on and on, but this is supposed to be a blog post, not a novel. At the event this week, Mayor Nenshi did a fantastic job of listing some of the outcomes of imagineCALGARY, including relationships, policies and inspiration. Intelligent Futures can be added to that list. I wouldn’t have suspected it when we finished the plan, but here we are.

So, thanks imagineCALGARY. Here’s to ten more years of positive change!