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Ep. 2 The Power of Numbers with Patricia McCarney

April 21, 2015

Patricia McCarney (World Council on City Data, U of T’s Global Cities Institute) explains how making a first-ever international standard for cities is helping urban centres to grow, improve and take on a transformative role for citizens.

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The Cities Podcast – Ep. 2 The Power of Numbers with Patricia McCarney



This is The Cities Podcast, I’m Brianna Goldberg.


One of the things I’ve realized as I lug my recording equipment around, interviewing all sorts of urban-focused people, is that cities can be a bit of an inkblot test. Everyone sees something different; and what they see tells you what’s important to them.


Last episode we heard from Shawn Micallef. He writes about urban explorations and, through his books and tweets and columns and teaching, he reveals the hidden adventures and histories that surround us as we walk through the city.


Graffiti artists see the city as a canvas. Ecologists see it as an urban forest. Travelers see it as an amusement park.


And then there are the people who look at a city and see… numbers.


Patricia McCarney leads the World Council on City Data.


In the fall, I spoke with her as part of our podcast miniseries leading-up to the municipal election – you can find that interview in our back episodes.


McCarney’s work is making it possible for cities to measure against each other – for the first time ever – when it comes to data on health, waste management, safety, finance and more.


Her team gathers stats from urban centres across the globe. And those numbers drive a first-of-its-kind system for comparing city data that resulted in the world’s first international standard for cities: ISO37120 for you international standards enthusiasts.


For those of you who aren’t so into that kind of thing, I’ll explain why this matters: cities can use this now internationally standardized data to make the best informed decisions, to benchmark and target improvements, to seek funding, and more.


It’s the global cities equivalent of a high school basketball player taping a poster of LeBron James on the wall. You look at the best possible outcome and say – how can I get myself there?


McCarney had so many great insights on the potential for this kind of work that I wasn’t able to fit it all into that one podcast last October.


So today we’re going to dip back into the interview as she explains how cities around the world are using this now standardized data to drive global change.


Heads up, I spoke with McCarney in her office at the very busy corner of Bloor and Avenue… some sirens make a bit of an appearance. I considered editing that section out but, honestly, that’s just what happens in cities… and I think it fits quite well with her message. I hope you’ll agree.


This is Patricia McCarney.


M:          The ability to leverage is really important for cities, whether it’s in North America and Europe or whether it’s in global south. The cities need this evidence to one, request support, but then also to measure their investments so they can benchmark. They can have a baseline now where they say if we put 350 million into water and sanitation in Dar es Salaam or if we build transit the way we’re proclaiming this will help our city to grow. We can actually start to benchmark and measure those investments, which is an incredible assistance we well for better management of cities, better efficiency in how we invest and how those investments are paying off. I think, you know, at this point in time, we were talking about the role of cities in all of the global context, given the population and demographic transition going on worldwide on cities, this whole 53% of the world is urbanized, 70% by 2050 will be living in cities. Already we’re at 83% in Canada. Cities, you know, are it. And they need metrics. They need good data to promote that development. But when you pair, this is an urban here where we live, we have a lot of fire engines going by, if you pair the demographic transition with the incredible demand right now for infrastructure investment, the scale of investment needed in infrastructure, whether it’s Toronto or Johannesburg, the scale and the deficit in infrastructure investment worldwide is so huge when you pair that with the knowledge we have on the growth of cities and where we’re moving with these cities that are going to be larger than countries, they already are some of them, that demographic transition together with the increasing demand for infrastructure investment, the scale of investment has never been greater. The demand has never been greater. So we have to have good data to support those decisions.


Q:           So imagining that these cities take everything that you’re putting together and are able to make change so that they can become better versions of themselves, how do you see cities maybe 20 years from now, and what are you most excited to watch for as we get from here to there in terms of the role of the city and the development, the rise of the city?


M:          If we think ahead 20 years, I think one of the things to watch for is how we transition in terms of energy efficiency. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges right now that I do believe we’re going to be able to crack that. The technology and the support from City Managers and City Planners to Mayors to Cisco to Google to Microsoft, I mean the technology around better cities.. I can’t predict where it’s going to be in 20 years, but I know that it’s driving better efficiency around energy which is an incredible leap forward for us. I think the other big thing though is that I do, and maybe it’s my optimistic side speaking, but I believe cities are going to be incredibly more livable in 20 years, and it’s because of technology and support from a multidisciplinary group of players that are having a stake in city development. We will have a more inclusive prosperity track in shape. I think that’s growing now. It’s not just prosperity but it’s inclusive prosperity. For the first time, you know, globally when you think of the global map for all of this, within the United Nation system, there’s a post 2015 development agenda that’s growing right now, that a colleague and I here, Richard Strenn and I are writing a lead paper for the U.N. Habitat Three which is coming up, looking back at the last 20 years and forward at the next 20 years. Cities are pivotal. We’re replacing the MDGs, the Millennium Development Goals with the SDGs – Sustainable Development Goals. MDGs are somewhat retiring and what’s next? It’s Sustainable development Goals. And in the MDGs we had no mention of a city goal. And guess what? In the SDGs we’re starting to think about an SDG dedicated to cities. But most of the SDGs in fact reflect on cities because if you’re going to talk about poverty or you’re going to talk about environment, of course you have to talk about cities with the planet shifting to this dominant way of living. But the SDGs now have a draft goal, Number 11, on cities, which didn’t happen during the MDG era. And many of us were frustrated who worked on cities, me in the case 30 years, working on cities since my undergraduate days here at U of T, in fact is when I started working on cities. It was very frustrating because of course the Millennium Development Goal should have been paying attention to cities. But now we have a possibility, in the draft at least, we hope it stays there, there will be an SDG dedicated to cities and it’s around sustainability and inclusive prosperity for cities and quality of living. So that’s a big goal which can, I believe, ISO 37 120 and 121, will support not only setting the goals, because in the past there was no data to set goals for cities, and that’s one of the complaints. That how can we have a goal for cities if we can’t even measure what’s going on in them? Well now we can. We’re positioning here at the Global Cities Institute at the World Council on City Data, we’re positioning ourselves to make arguments around the SDG including the city goal, that we can help with the metrics to support it. We can help to frame it, we can help to set the target for it, and then we can help to benchmark achievement of the target, to help cities report on that new SDG. And that will, that’s a game-changer. It hasn’t happened before. there was no data to support these goals before.




Patricia McCarney is President of the World Council on City Data. She also heads up the Global Cities Institute at U of T… and she’s a professor political science.


Thanks so much joining us on the Cities podcast. I can’t wait to tell you about all the great stuff we have lined up for future episodes. And if you don’t want to miss a thing, then please subscribe on iTunes or follow us on SoundCloud. It’s free and it means you’ll get updates as soon as we add anything new. Of course you can also keep an eye out on U of T News.


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Special thanks to our guest Patricia McCarney. You can hear more from her in the archived episode from last fall.


Thanks also to Jay Ferguson for composing the music you heard in this episode, which he made just for us and I think is so cool.


The Cities podcast is produced by me, Brianna Goldberg, with help from U of T News editor Jennifer Lanthier.


Thanks for listening.