Sanjay Khanna is a futurist, speaker, and thought-leader who sits on the advisory group of the City of Toronto and TAF project, TransformTO.  This is the fifth interview in our TransformTO Talks series with multi-sectoral experts.


TAF: Can you tell us about your current work and interest in the topic of resilience?

Sanjay: I began my work looking at disruptive change caused by the increased use of technology by organizations and individuals, and how that could yield unintended consequences for society. Then I started looking at the potential underlying impacts of climate change, and as a result, grew increasingly concerned about the long-term health and wellbeing of societies around the world. My concern grew about how a faster rate of change would affect not only our evolution as a species but our behavior as individual community members. Hence the interest in community-based resilience.

TAF: Why did you personally agree to participate as an advisor in TransformTO? How does your work relate to this project?

Sanjay: As a consultant I’ve looked a lot at adaptation to megatrends and emerging shocks, including economic and social shocks. I look at the role that preventative actions can play in helping our society adapt to change and, where possible, find areas to thrive. The most concerning thing about climate change is that it could reduce opportunities in areas where we want to grow opportunity. So I chose to participate in TransformTO because it’s an effort that aims to prevent future repercussions – it’s an important piece that relates to preventing harm.

TAF: Your work seems to focus specifically on climate adaptation, but are you suggesting that the mitigation actions that are the focus of TransformTO are just as important?

Sanjay: I think there needs to be interplay between them. The climate scientists say we’ve delayed mitigation for so long that now a significant amount of resources are needed for adaptation. And it’s not just the climate scientists. I work closely with the insurance industry, which would also say that from a climate adaptation perspective, we need to do a lot more to prevent flooding and to protect communities from extreme weather events. There is a lot of evidence that we’re now in an adaptive world – we still need to work hard on the mitigation piece – but I think it’s very important to identify the mitigation opportunities that work in harmony with adaptive measures and reinforce greater community resilience.

TAF: Where do you see the most significant synergies or overlap between climate mitigation actions and adaptation actions?

Sanjay: I’m not entirely sure what the sweet spot is. One of the outputs of the TransformTO process will be the synthesis report that describes some of the sweet spots from the technical analysis and recommendations from the Modelling Advisory Group. So I wouldn’t want to preempt those results. But boosting smart energy use across the board, and limiting the carbon footprint of infrastructure and the electricity grid, could complement resiliency to some extent.

TAF: What are some of the conditions for success when trying to implement these actions on the city level?

Sanjay: Well none of these efforts scale particularly well without pretty profound community engagement. The engagement may be with industry, for example, or the transportation sector. In some instances, emissions can be decreased significantly without much political will. But generally it’s difficult to make big changes without citizen engagement because that’s what influences policy makers.

TAF: Speaking of political will and engaging communities, while the effects of climate change are visible today, it’s often seen as a “future” issue. How do we motivate the community and our politicians to act on these issues now?

Sanjay: Paradoxically, I think it’s harder to do than it’s ever been. Torontonians face more change and pressure, and when people are stressed, they actually respond more slowly to change. They also make poor decisions more quickly and pervasively. We can motivate action and make better decisions with an increased focus on social cohesion and by working together at the neighbourhood level. Interpersonal networks that complement resiliency are important. Most of us can only handle one problem at a time, so you have to create conditions where people can concentrate on one action and make progress, even on an item that might seem to be relatively small. Those small actions can aggregate to support social cohesion.

TAF: In your opinion, what’s the cost of inaction? What does the future of Toronto look like in 2050 if we continue to operate in a business as usual scenario?

Sanjay: This is a hard question to answer because the farther one looks out, the more challenging the repercussions in Toronto and around the world. By acknowledging realistic projections, it’s easy for people to feel disempowered, which implies collective action may not be as viable as some would hope. Under a business as usual scenario, Toronto hits what’s known as “climate departure” by the year 2049, meaning that we have moved completely outside the temperature record that human beings have thrived under. If we reduce emissions 80% by 2050, it’s estimated you’d only delay climate departure by 25 years – taking you to around 2074. That puts your question in stark relief. We can extend the GTHA’s quality of life through both mitigation and adaptation.

TAF: What single piece of advice do you have for the TransformTO team to make this project successful?

Sanjay: Cities that use technology effectively to mitigate emissions – while providing adaptive measures – those are going to attract the most investment. So I think the project would benefit from a strong story about how a low-carbon and resilient Toronto will attract investment and economic development. I think this is about building the city for the 21st century – it’s the safest place to invest because of foresight in infrastructure resilience as well as harnessing mitigating technologies. Those are the two areas that will start becoming determining factors when cities are ranked around the world as the best places to invest.

TAF: What are some examples of cities doing it best around the world?

Sanjay: Toronto is already ranked pretty highly, in part because of where it sits geographically. Toronto is an important city and it’s important for us to be a leader in how we protect our communities – but also set the stage for success. I’m impressed by the efforts of the city to bring together the right people.  It’s important to acknowledge the collective efforts that have been made to try to stave off some of the challenges that we face.