|Whether this is a hill or a wall is up to you.|
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Saturday, December 18, 2010
|Where are they now? Come to think of it, where are you now?|
Saturday, December 11, 2010
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Saturday, November 27, 2010
|The cover of the Climate Action Network Report.|
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Video from http://gordonmcdowell.com/20101108-yyc-city-council/ - Thanks Gordon!
Municipal governments have lots of information. Although it's hard to predict the benefits, public information should be made available in a form that computers can use.
Application developers would be able to create interesting ways of remixing that information and making it more useful.
Imagine that snowplow crews kept track of which roads were cleared, in realtime, and fed that data to applications which could keep track of which roads were passable, and after a big dump of snow, could give you an idea of how long before your crescent would be cleared. It would save you having to call to ask when your road would be cleared, because you could find that out yourself.
Or, imagine that realtime GPS tracks from every bus in the city were available, along with what route they're on and the number of the individual bus. What could you do with that information?
With the right application, you could tell where the bus is, and whether you've missed it or not. You could find out how long you'll have to wait for the bus, and whether you have time to run back and grab that thing you forgot.
A clever application developer could even use the GPS tracks as a proxy for traffic congestion and provide realtime traffic reports, so its users could avoid areas of congestion.
Smartphone-using drivers could contribute to the dataset by uploading their (anonymized) GPS tracks in realtime as well. (WEB UPDATE - THIS IS STARTING TO HAPPEN.) (I'm going 25 km/h on this part of the highway.) With enough participation, you'd have a live traffic congestion map. (That highway's slow right now.) Smart direction finding programs could then take traffic into account when giving you directions.
Some interesting experiments are happening in Calgary with closed captioning of their council meetings, machine translation, and webcasts on youtube. They are leveraging things that already exist to provide access to non-english speakers.
Of course the most exciting possibilities are the ones that haven't been imagined yet. With the data electronically available and applications can be developed to sift, recombine and present the data in ways that haven't been imagined yet. Moreover, the innovative cities that take the lead on this give themselves an advantage.
Making public information available electronically will provide more opportunities for developers to build interesting and useful applications.
Thanks to the #yycdata innovators for inspiring this column and bringing these ideas to life. -A.
You might also like:
Saturday, November 13, 2010
We live in a cold climate. In the winter we would freeze without some way to stay warm.
A district energy system can keep entire neighbourhoods warm, without needing everyone to own and maintain a furnace.
District heating is more energy efficient than many individual furnaces. It's more worthwhile to use renewable energy and end users don't need to own, maintain, or leave space for a furnace.
There's a district heat system in Okotoks, Alberta that stores summer solar heat in the ground and distributes it in the winter.
The new district energy facility in Calgary provides the heat for city hall, and is set to provide all the heat for the new East Village redevelopment.
That facility can be operated by one person, and he gets to go home at night. The system will let him know if there's a problem and he can either log in and fix it from home, or go in to fix it.
Some systems can make electricity too.
Customers pay for the heat they use. The heat is generated in a plant with big boilers rather than at home in your less efficient furnace.
District heating has been operating in europe for over 50 years.
Revelstoke has been using district heat since 2005, burning waste wood from a local timber mill.
As you think about how to grow your city, consider district energy as an alternative to the same old system.
It takes vision and leadership to try to change the way things have been done. Not every city has what it takes to be a leader.
Don't miss out on the potential benefits. Do the research. Look at the options. Figure out if it makes sense for you.
This sort of system won't be cheap to start up, but keep in mind that every dwelling unit that it serves will not need to buy a furnace of its own. That's the sort of savings that adds up quickly.
Remember, district energy is only one element of the city we should be working towards. Higher density mixed use communities not only work well for direct energy, they provide a the critical mass of people for local business, social interactions, walkable communities and viable transit.
WEB EXCLUSIVE: BC's Community Energy Association has lots of great resources including the Heating Our Communities - Renewable Energy Guide for Local Governments in BC.
You might also like:
Saturday, November 6, 2010
There's no getting around the fact that Canada is a resource-rich country. This land is our land. Valuing an intact ecosystem is a complex exercise. The benefits of keeping the system intact are small but enduring for everyone. On the other hand, strip mining the land involves a big short-term payday for the the mining company. Simple. Short-sighted.
That short-term payday is accompanied by what economists call externalities. Those externalities take the form of environmental degradation and disruption to the intact ecosystems. But the mining company won't be around for the devastation.
Surprisingly, we are getting better at these decisions. As intact ecosystems become rare, we start recognizing their intrinsic value. They have more triple-bottom-line value intact than if we destroy them.
For example, on November 2 the Federal Government announced that it would not approve the $3 Billion Prosperity Gold-Copper Mine proposed by Taseko Mines Ltd. due to significant adverse environmental effects. The tailings from the mine would have destroyed Teztan Biny (Fish Lake), Y'anah Biny (Little Fish Lake) and portions of Teztan Yeqox (Fish Creek). The mine would also have trampled on First Nations interests in the area. The BC Government had already approved the project, but it also required federal approval.
As another example, an application by a potato farming company to buy 65 square km (100 quarter sections) of native grassland near Bow Island in Alberta was withdrawn. The Alberta Wilderness Association pointed out that the area provides habitat for several species at risk.
In both of these cases, significant public outcries were made and may have swayed the outcome. Frankly, it's too bad these outcries seem to be necessary. We elect people to make decisions on our behalf, then we need to scrutinize them constantly for fear that they'll cave to special interests or return political favours.
However, in the same news release as the Prosperity Mine announcement, they approved the Mount Milligan Gold-Copper Mine, including the 52 million tonnes of potentially acid generating waste rock and tailings. Political cover? Of course, and from both sides. The Nak'azdli First Nation is concerned about the long term environmental damage and don't feel like they've been adequately consulted.
Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice is quoted wanting to "balance resource stewardship with economic development". Fair compromise? Devastation-lite? Only time will tell.
The more you have the harder you have to work to maintain it. In surplus, no-one thinks of shortage.
You might also like:
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Monday, October 25, 2010
Last week was waste reduction week, although you might have missed that with all the hype around the various Alberta municipal elections.
With some modifications to the kinds of things you buy we can really cut down on the amount of waste going to the landfill. You already have enough stuff. Visit cleanbinproject.com for some great ideas on how to reduce solid waste going to the landfill.
Although Waste Reduction Week is about reducing garbage, there are other sources of waste in our society that get in the way of living the life we want.
In the world, natural resources are limited, and if we put them in the landfill eventually we won't have access to those resources anymore, without mining the landfills.
In our lives however, time is the scarcest resource, unlike the landfill, once time passes we can't get it back.
Toss out any notions of time management. Unless your DeLorean can do 88 MPH, or (for the physicists) unless you're moving at nearly the speed of light, your time will pass steadily and relentlessly into the past.
Instead, think in terms of managing your attention and activity.
Facebook games, for example, may be free of financial charge, but you're still paying the price with your non-renewable attention. Same story with TV, websurfing, or anything you could choose to spend time on.
The time is going to march on regardless of what you do. Best to make the most of it. Here's how.
Be clear about your goals, both in the short term and the long term. Clarity of purpose is a powerful way to cut down on wasted time.
Once you know what you're trying to accomplish, then work to use your scarce resources, your time and your attention, to get it done.
Don't waste your time or your attention. You could stand to cut back on your garbage too.
You might also like:
Friday, October 15, 2010
Elections can throw into sharp relief what we care about, both individually and in community.
Individually, either you've paid attention to the issues and marked your boxes thoughtfully, or you've ticked off boxes at random, or you didn't bother to show up to vote.
Your awareness of the issues is higher than usual as you've balanced the pros and cons of various people and positions to decide what matters to you most.
Everyone else has had to pick too. There are winners and losers. You've had a chance to look at the aggregation of what other people care about.
Some issues are likely to come to the fore. Everybody's wondering what's in it for them. Snow removal, roads, infrastructure, economic development, economic attraction are all popular subjects around election time. Hey, here's some free candy. Vote for me okay?
On the flip side of those issues is the issue of taxes, how those government services we demand get paid for. We want it both ways: Great services and low taxes. As individual communities, the election shows us how we make that tradeoff.
In any case, the elected officials need to work in the long term best interests of their constituents. The short term interest doesn't cut it. Taxes would be slashed, maintenance deferred, and over time everything would fall into disrepair.
Working in the community's long-term best interest is more difficult, but it's ultimately more rewarding. Not only do you keep the infrastructure from falling apart, but you build common amenities that no individual could build alone, the public spaces and transportation networks that no individual would build or maintain alone, but that serve us all well.
Take a close look at the election results once they come out. That's what your community cares about.
Once they're elected though, they represent you whether you voted for them or not. Make sure to let them know how you feel on the issues you care about. Then let them use their best judgement to work in the community's long term best interest. They may disagree with you, but at least they'll know where you're coming from.
Whatever side they're on, do what you can to steer them away from the dangerous allure of short term thinking.
You might also like:
Saturday, October 9, 2010
Imagine you've just turned 18. If your first thought was "let's go to the bar" you're probably not alone.
But this is isn't about being able to go drink. We're way beyond that now. You get some of the responsibility for this experiment called civilization.
No more training wheels. The world is going to be what you make it. It's up to you to stick up for yourself and your generation.
Governments are tempted to push problems into the future rather than dealing with them now. In case you haven't been told, well, you're an adult now: There are lots of problems.
The big problems involve living beyond our means. Financially, and ecologically, we borrow from the future to get some sort of benefit right now. We're sorry. We mean well. It's the system. You'll get to use the [expensive_amenity] too. There are lots of excuses.
The people who are making these choices/excuses are older than you, and care less about the future than you do. They see it in the distance. You'll have to live there.
Like it or not, you're going to be responsible for cleaning up their mess, or facing the consequences if you don't.
Your best shot at the future starts now.
Municipal governments in Alberta will be elected October 18. Pay attention to the issues. Elect people who represent you. Otherwise people who don't care so much will end up deciding your future.
Politicians know that young adults typically don't vote. That's why they don't often address the long term issues that will affect you most of all.
You've had your adolescent rebellion. Now put that aside. Claim your adulthood. Care. Vote.
But there's so much more. Step into your power. They won't see you coming. They don't even understand what's about to overwhelm them.
You represent the most connected generation in the history of the world. You could coordinate a thousand people without getting out from under the covers.
Imagine what you could do if you really put your mind, your thumbs, and your energy into it.
Those problems? They're getting worse. The status quo isn't a solution. Nobody has more to gain from a sustainable future than you do. What's more, you have the tools, the connectivity and the self-interest to take a stand and make a difference.
Vote, but don't dare stop there. The future you save may be your own.
You might also like:
Saturday, October 2, 2010
Tax cuts are cheap publicity, easy to explain to voters and completely short sighted. What you should look for instead is sound fiscal management. That might even include tax cuts, but let's look at the big picture.
Municipal deficits are worse than low taxes. Deficits become debt. Interest on debt compromises the future by eating away at future tax revenues until you pay back all the money. The interest payments eventually become a large part of where tax money goes, and cripple options for the future.
Running deficits kicks the problem down the road, saddling the adults of tomorrow with debt because we couldn't make the hard choices to live within our means. Won't somebody think of the children? The kids will have enough problems of their own. They don't deserve ours too.
Sound fiscal management, on the other hand, would bring in enough money to cover the cost of services and administration, put a little away for emergencies, and pay off any debt.
Getting clear of debt eliminates the interest charges that would otherwise be a drag on the municipality, and lets the taxes cover the municipal expenses, like they should.
For example, if your municipality owes $1000/person in debt at 6.6% interest, that's an extra $66 per person that they need to raise through taxes each year, just to cover the interest on the debt. Having that debt paid off would mean a $66/year tax cut for everybody, all else remaining equal.
But that means making hard decisions because we can't live beyond our means. Making those tough calls is better than having austerity measures imposed on you. In Spain, Belgium, Italy and Greece, their austerity measures are drawing huge protests from societies that became accustomed to living beyond their means. Let's not let it get that far.
Municipalities need to get clear of debt and stay that way. It's easy to spend more than you have. That doesn't make it responsible.
Elect responsible leaders. Vote this election, either in advance or on election day, and beware candidates promising tax cuts.
You might also like:
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Today, let's take a hard look at the system we use to elect our Mayors, who will become the leader of our municipal government for the next three years.
The Mayor is elected in a poorly named first past the post system, prevalent in most countries with heavy British colonial influence. There is no 'post'. It's just a question of who gets the most votes. No nuance, just mark the candidate you hope to have win.
With two candidates, it's just that simple. With more than two, however, making your selection gets complicated. If you think your candidate has a good chance of winning, you can still vote for her, but if you think she's unlikely to win, you might be better off voting dishonestly.
For example, assume you really want candidate Asparagus to win but would be satisfied with candidate Bagel. You can't stand candidate Doughnut. If Bagel and Doughnut are neck and neck in the polls, votes for Asparagus would be wasted. Bagel might need that vote to beat Doughnut, and by voting for your favourite candidate, you would end up electing someone you like even less.
Asparagus would be a spoiler in this type of election.
In the US, the Democratic party points to Ralph Nader's participation in the Presidential Election as spoiling the election for Al Gore, particularly in Florida and handing the election to George W. Bush instead. Exit polls showed twice as many Nader supporters preferred Gore to Bush, but by voting for Nader, they elected a candidate further from what they wanted.
'Alternative Vote' is more complicated, but avoids this spoiler problem. Electors would rank the candidates in order of preference. The number of first place votes would be counted. If there's no majority winner, the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated, and instead are counted for their second preference.
This continues until one candidate has an absolute majority of support and is declared elected.
In this system, everyone is encouraged to vote for their true preferences, rather than playing a guessing game around who others might vote for.
The First Past the Post system wastes a tremendous number of votes, and voters have learned that their vote is unlikely to matter, and therefore it's easy to justify staying home on election day.
The Alternative Vote solves this problem by making each vote matter more, and should elect a candidate more broadly acceptable to the majority of the public.
Admittedly, the Alternative Vote strategy requires an understanding of the system, but with a broadly educated and literate public like we have in Canada, that shouldn't be a problem.
This isn't going to change for this election though. For now, unless your mayor is acclaimed, you're stuck with the First Past the Post guessing game.
You might also like:
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Save big! (by not spending money)
Conservation needs better marketing because it doesn't show up on the balance sheet. There's no easy way to count 'money you didn't spend' or 'energy you didn't waste', but it all goes straight to the bottom line.
You did want more money on the bottom line, right? Whether you run a small business, a big corporation, or just a household, conserving your resources is a way of hanging on to more of your money.
Let's be clear. "Save 50% on blue widgets" doesn't actually save you anything, it encourages you to spend more. If you needed them anyway and you buy them on sale you spend less, but that's not savings until you put the money you would have spent but didn't into the bank. Save 100% by not buying it.
For the cost of several tanks of gas you could own a bicycle that could keep you from burning the gasoline in the first place. That sort of savings can endure if you keep riding the bike.
If you gave up the vehicle completely, you could also eliminate the fixed costs like insurance, registration and car payments that don't care whether you drive the car or not. Maybe it would be cheaper to rent a car when you need it, rather than owning it outright. That's savings, but you can't really add it up because it's just money you didn't spend.
Another potential big win for conservation has to do with the potential interconnections that might not be obvious at first.
Take the example of a swimming pool and a skating rink. You need to heat the pool and cool the rink. If these buildings were separate you would have to heat and cool them separately.
By designing them together, you can take the heat you sucked out of the skating rink and use that to heat the pool, saving lots of energy. If you can pair up with someone who can use your energy or your waste products it will be good for both of you.
This takes thinking ahead, but by thinking ahead you can save money and energy for the life of the project.
If you didn't think ahead and want to achieve the savings then you're looking at retrofitting, and that means spending money to change something that's already working. That makes it much tougher to justify economically. Better to do it right the first time.
Want to really save money? Pay off your debt. Put money into savings. You won't see that advertised though, because nobody makes money when you hang on to your cash.
Having said that, nobody is going to unplug from the economy either, so take this to heart: When you spend money, spend it at local businesses. The value to your community of a thriving local economy far outweighs the buck or two you might save elsewhere.
You might also like:
Saturday, September 11, 2010
Running for local office is a huge undertaking and a big responsibility, but the people who run are pillars of our community, whether they win or not.
Governing takes up lots of time: getting ready for meetings, spending time at the meetings, attending events. Who has that kind of time?
You also make yourself available available as a public figure. That opens your life up to media scrutiny. Any decision you made is available to pulled out of the past and used to ridicule you in public. Who wants to be ridiculed like that?
If you do something well, it's likely to go unnoticed and unappreciated, but if something goes poorly they know exactly who to tar and feather. Why would anyone put themselves at that sort of risk?
In three years, if you want to keep your job, you'll have to plead for it again. Who wants that kind of job 'security'?
Candidates certainly aren't in it for the money. There are easier ways to make the amount of money that working in Municipal Government can bring you.
Normal people would avoid this sort of risk and scrutiny that comes with running for elected office.
What does that say about the people who put themselves out there?
They're either crazy for wanting to do this, or they're heroes for being generous enough to step up in spite of the time commitment and the public scrutiny.
Everyone you see running for office is worthy of your respect. Whether you like their platform or not, they have stepped up. They're trying to make their community a better place. They're offering us a choice. That's something we need to thank them for.
Pay attention to the issues. Vote for the candidates who you think would represent you the best. The system isn't perfect, but it's the one we have.
These people are courageous citizens, practically volunteering their time and expertise to make things better.
Candidates care deeply about the community they live in, and want to make a difference. They may care about it in very different ways than you do.
Whether you agree with the candidate knocking on your door or not, thank her for running. It's people like that, people who stand up for what they believe in who make our communities what they are.
They run because that's how they can make a difference.
Whether we pay attention and get involved or not, we get the government we deserve. Let's get a government we can be proud of.
You might also like: