How can we bring optimism and engagement to bear in creating the low-carbon city of the future? John Robinson offered some insightful answers to these questions this week’s 2016 Eric Krause Memorial Lecture at the University of Toronto.

ProJohnRobinson2fessor Robinson recently came to Toronto from BC, where he played a key role in supporting sustainability excellence at the UBC campus and in the City of Vancouver. His first message to Torontonians: remember to check out the leadership work happening outside of Central Canada! We might learn something useful! Another key message was to reinforce the idea of “regenerative sustainability,” meaning that working to address climate change isn’t just about staving off disaster (less bad) but can actually mean building a future that is much better for human and environmental well-being (more good).

Drawing on experience in BC where climate policy has had much longer to drive results, he reinforced the importance of policy that requires us to measure and report our performance. But research in BC shows that success on the sustainability front is also driven by two other related approaches:  broader framing of the sustainability issue – with respect to jobs, equity and health and well-being for example – and public engagement in decision-making.
Beyond the how we need to change, John Robinson focused on what needs to change:

  1. Stop thinking it is just a technical fix. Sustainability solutions go way beyond a simple technical update. We need to consider a much broader set of changes about how we govern ourselves, who participates, and what we value.
  2. Stop fearing failure. Learning and experimentation are critical, as ways to drive the innovation necessary to address new challenges.
  3. Start involving everyone in shaping the future they desire. Diversity is democratic, it means we have a multitude of perspectives, talents and wisdom improving the strategy, and builds the necessary popular support to allow politicians to make tough decisions.

Professor Robinson concluded his presentation with some “fightin’ words” to help Toronto pull up its sustainability game, calling for the University of Toronto to look for ways to link with the City in resolving key sustainability issues, and to take bold action to turn its campus into a living lab for sustainability practice.

He urged the City of Toronto to bust its bureaucratic silos and embrace sustainability as a city-wide principle; to embrace experimentation and innovation through the creation of urban sustainability transition labs; and to work in tandem with multiple levels of government and with universities. He also challenged us to amp up the consultation process associated with TransformTO, with a goal of engaging 200,000 citizens in envisioning what kind of city we want for ourselves and our children.

Sounds like some advice worth considering seriously. To help us do so, we’ve invited John Robinson to sit on a new community-city advisory panel for the TransformTO project, and we look forward to benefiting from some lessons from the West!