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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Capitalism's Fordian Flaw: Ignorance is Not Bliss

Man against man?  Check.
Man against himself?  Check.
Man against nature?  Rob Ford is spoiling for that fight.
Rob Ford is a functionally fixed man with a deep level of delusion.  He sees himself (except in his darkest moments) as the embodiment of the Horatio Alger myth; the fella who fought his way to the top and will fight to stay there against any comers, be they other politicians, the press, his substance abuse or even cancer.
It's a narrative that his family clearly fuels, partially because they want it to be true but, it must be said, partially because they see the benefits of that particular narrative.
The only sort of story people love more than a Fall is come-back.

We love us our fighters.  They don't just come in the pugilistic category; Erin Brockovich is a fighter in the mold of Ellen Ripley, who is a fighter.   Stephen Hawking is revered for his ability to fight against his own failing body to achieve great things; the Dalai Lama fights against the easy course of violence and remains functionally fixed on his agenda of peaceful protest.
This is the capitalist dream; the implication is that anyone, if they have enough grit, can become the President of a company or the country.  It's that trait - tenacity - that matters above all else. 
In fact, it replaces all else.  Anything that detracts from personal grit is bad; anything that surfaces it is good.  Socialism, as such, is bad; it unnaturally holds individuals down in a learned helplessness instead of freeing them to God's gift of individualism.  Better to put a gun in a man's hand that he may fight for himself than a roof over his head and domesticate him. 

This is why even those who detest Rob Ford put him in a special category reserved for those who do not quit.  Whether we like or despise the process or results, people admire tenacity.  He's the Dean Moriarty of Toronto Politics, the holy goof who, now that it's a universally-feared illness he's fighting may very well emerge as something more.
Anyone who has even a shred of social conscience wants Rob Ford to succeed in his battle with cancer.  At some level, it's because we feel that if someone with the personal failings and health challenges of a Rob Ford can win, then maybe we or our loved ones can, too.
Rob Ford's personal faults and excesses have transformed him into a superhuman.
We can only hope that he does, but if he succeeds, it will be in spite, not because, of his personal habits, his family and inner circles enabling or the laissez-fair culture we live in.
Rob Ford has told us many times how he has changed his ways; his proclamations have invariably turned out to be lies told not only to us, it seems, but to himself as well.  Ford clearly has moments of doubt, but largely is able to convince himself that, rational actor that he is, he is always in the driver's seat where his behavior, or health, or political battles are concerned.
He is what we would have him to be - sucks it up, he keeps his dukes up, he stays the course - he is driven.  Clearly, it's worked for him, right?  Despite everything, he's mayor - and that, that title, his wealth, his public persona, that's what matters.  That's what defines success.

Yet Ford is a man in clear disarray; his health suffers, his family suffers, his community suffers.  Even now, he's putting his recovery at risk because he is driven.  His brother is equally driven. 
Campaigning and speaking engagements are good exercise for battling cancer?  Give me a break.
Cancer, like substance abuse or any mental health problem, is not something external that we, as individuals, fight against - it is a part of us that, without external support, will consume us. 
Rob Ford embodies the great leaping logic gap of capitalism; success is not an individual labour.  Health is not an individual enterprise.  We human beings are not rational actors, nor are we islands in a tame sea. 
Rob Ford's cancer is not an invading force.  It's part of the biological system that is Rob Ford.  Rob Ford's addictions are not demons imposed; they are part of him. 
Rob Ford is not a saviour nor a sinner, external to our society - he is one of us.  And we are part of him.
We are as functionally fixed as Rob Ford, yet equally beset by doubt. 
Does the fight make us happy?  Does it sustain us where failed relationships with loved ones does not? 
Does money bring us joy?  Do we enjoy having it more than we get frustrated with those seeking to take it from us?  Do our daily labours, our long commutes make us happy?  Does having the latest fashion or smartphone fill us with a sense of completion?
Does the frame of individual as silo make us feel powerful, or disconnected?
If we are investing so much time and energy in activities that bring us doubt and are fraying both our world and our selves, how rational are we truly?
The only time putting the race before sustainable health makes sense is when we are being chased.  In a civilized, competitive world, the only predators we face are each other and ourselves.  And nature still consumes us all.
Capitalism has no answer to this reality - it's about pushing ahead, not looking around.  Developing context and crafting solutions is what sociology is for.
Something I wish everyone, Rob Ford included, could be conscious of.

Friday 26 September 2014

Not the Right Message

If you're not a contender, it's not worth my time to debate with you.  Unless you come to my office, you know, and harass me, which is the way to get ahead.
Good politics?  Maybe.  But it's also what's wrong with our system.  When the top dogs can't be bothered to engage with those who've gone to the trouble, against the odds, to mount a political campaign and team in pursuit of elected office, what hope do folk from marginalized communities without resources or refined language have?
Leaders don't wait for people to come to them, nor ignore forums where only "lesser contenders" are present. 
Leaders walk with the people.

Open Mandate Letters: A Wynne for Ontario

There's been much talk about Open Government, globally - in fact, there's an emerging Open Community looking to support governments, empower citizens and bridge the gap between all levels of society so that this open thing can work.
Partly, it's about transparency - when governments are closed, they are less accountable and therefore more likely to do things not in the public interest.
Being open is about more than that, though - it's about expanding opportunity.
What generally happens when these mandate letters get out is that Government Relations folk will work their contacts, get inside scoop on what to expect and can then tailor their clients' outreach to line up with and benefit from a given Minister's marching orders.  It gives them an unfair advantage over people who can't call up just the right person for a coffee.
Opening up the sausage like this allows for more people to see what's being done and why; this helps set expectations at the Ministerial level, demonstrates what course-corrections are being taken (and therefore, lessons that have been learned).  It also helps more people see where their opportunities, or opportunities for their partners/friends, may lie.
For instance - I know that Toronto City Councilor candidates Andray Domise and Terri Chu are very interested in youth entrepreneurship centres for more marginalized communities in the city; these centres could be developed in partnership with libraries, schools or Toronto Community Housing to make use of existing space.
Now, thanks to the Ministry of Research and Innovation's Open Mandate letter, I know that Minister Reza Moridi has been tasked with:
I know a ton of Virtuous Schemers inside and outside the Ontario Public Service who will be excited (though jaded, thanks to the clay layer of entrenched management that is stifling dynamism within the OPS) by this:
And this is just one Ministry.  If I can think of connections and opportunities for partners across the board out of this letter, imagine what everyone else can do when/if they have a chance to read these.
One thing I would like to see, however, to increase the value of these Open Mandates:
- content broken down into tight bullets with sector flags on them, maybe aggregated in a portal with search-term navigability. 
Dense text turns people off, meaning they lose opportunities to develop solutions that work for everyone.  Making it easy for people to track down what bits touch on their sector/demographic and who to contact for follow-up would really help in bridging the gaps between citizens and public servants.
The important thing, though, is that this is happening.  The backroom instructions received by Ministers are being brought to light, which is a great thing.
Props to Team Wynne and Deb Matthews in particular for doing this - it's what leadership is.

Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Attorney General

Children and Youth Services

Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade

Community and Social Services

Community Safety and Correctional Services

Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure



Environment and Climate Change


Finance: Ontario Retirement Pension Plan

Francophone Affairs

Government and Consumer Services

Health and Long-Term Care

Health and Long-Term Care: Long-Term Care and Wellness

Intergovernmental Affairs


Municipal Affairs and Housing

Natural Resources and Forestry

Northern Development and Mines

Pan/Parapan American Games Secretariat

Research and Innovation

Seniors' Secretariat

Tourism, Culture and Sport

Training, Colleges and Universities


Treasury Board Secretariat

Women's Directorate


Thursday 25 September 2014

The Benevolent Speaker

There's truth in this.
We shouldn't be choosing, as the analogy goes, which is the better option - the abusive slave owner or the benevolent slave owner.
What we should be doing is getting rid of slavery.
In the House of Commons, Members of Parliament aren't free to voice their opinions, nor even represent their constituents' wishes in many cases.
That's not the Speaker's fault.
Who is at fault is clear to me, but of less interest - what I'm interested in is how we fix the system.

Open Data vs. OpenGov: This is Not a Pen

Cannot state how much I love this.
The angle here, or course, is that you are targeting what you've got to what a potential customer needs - you don't sell a pen to someone with no inclination to write.  Or who doesn't know how to write.  Or can't read.
I had a chat last night with Richard Pietro and Bianca Wylie about Open Government as a concept and Open Data as a focus.  We all agreed, as have many in the Open Community, that Open Data is a terrible selling point.  Nobody gets it.  It doesn't feel relevant.  If anything, it feels like an imposition.
Which is completely fair to say.  People aren't instinctively trying to make their lives more complex; they want to be secure, healthy, happy, have nice things and have some social relevance.  What, on the surface, does data contribute to any of these things?
Exactly.  Data is a tool.  Technology is a tool.  Tools are meant to help people solve problems - they aren't problem-solvers in and of themselves. 
Yet that's how we frame tech, or new processes, or new jargon, don't we?  This new exercise will give you flat abs (in a week - so commitment isn't that long)!  This new framework will increase employee productivity!  Cut your house-work hours in half with product X!
Poverty, social imbalance, crime?  There's surely an App for that.
That's where much of the focus of Open Gov/Open Data has gone to date - new systems for accessing data, new processes for using data, etc.  Open practitioners will get all excited about what Open Data can do and yet get frustrated when the people and media outlets don't seem to jump on the emerging opportunity.
How can people not want to wade in pools of open data? 
Well - why should they?
The concept isn't being communicated to the masses in a way that speaks of relevancy.  Accessing open data won't bring more cash into the house, won't speed up the commute, won't help the kids find work or solve the bedbug problem.  Those are the things that matter.  Open data can't solve any of that.
Data is not even a tool - it's a natural resource, like wood or oil.  It does nothing without extraction, manipulation and some packaging and transportation.  You can't drink data, nor fill your tank with it, nor bump up your kids' grades with it.
Open Data is a resource that, on its own, has no value for the average person.  It's the ink, without the pen.  If you can't make the pen relevant, how are you going to sell the ink?
Open Government isn't a pen.  It's something completely different.
We already have a government - it's something we all agree is necessary, whether it's for defending our shores from foreign threats or for coordinating and funding healthcare and infrastructure, we all know that a centralized system for coordination and representation is needed.
The problem we've all recognized, whether we've clearly articulated it or not, is that we don't believe government is working any more.  It doesn't represent us.  It isn't addressing the issues it's supposed to.  The tool is either being misused, or is completely broken.
We need government, but it isn't working.  That's a problem.  But what can be done about it?  Who's responsible for fixing it?
This is where Open Government comes in.  Open Government is about realigning the process of government so that its core purpose (strong individuals, strong society) is achieved.  That's it.
What does this mean, though, in practice? 
Open Government means representatives that listen to empowered people and co-designed policy that leaves nobody behind and moves all of us forward.
Open Government isn't a tool - it's a mission statement.  It's something we can aspire to - but can only be achieved when people work together. 
Politicians aren't Open Government.  The public service isn't Open Government.  Taxpayers aren't Open Government.
The people are Open Government.  You cannot have a government that is open without a society willing to use the tools of governance effectively.
Strong individuals = Responsible Society.  Strong Society allows for Open Government, which we need.
People don't buy a product, Simon Sinek tells us, nor do they buy what we're selling - a service, a tool, whatever.  They will buy a service, a product, but they won't invest in it simply for what it is.  This may have something to do with why voter turnout is going down - our democracy is not a product or service people feel offers proper return on investment.
This is why Open Government has quickly become a worldwide phenomenon.  It's more than a process change - it's a social movement, a revolution of global proportions.
People who have no reason to connect with each other because they're in different sectors, or on different continents are reaching out, engaging, participating, sharing and building this emerging Open Community. 

The internet is one tool for doing so - data is another.  #OGT14 was one guy, one bike and a bunch of people chatting and tweeting from venues.
What these are isn't particularly exciting - they aren't the substance of what people care about.  Why these things are is powerful beyond the ability of datasets to describe.

Why matters; it speaks to us all.
Open Data is a tool - like a pen.  We're not interested in selling you a pen.
Open Government is the story of tomorrow, being written right now.  We want you to be part of writing this story - in fact, we need you to be part of writing this story, because it cannot be complete without you.
We aren't selling you a pen.  Hopefully, we're inspiring and empowering you to write.  That's why we're doing this.
So - how might we help you join us?

UPDATED: Open isn't a process, it's not a data set - it's a movement, and an increasingly powerful one. 

Towards what, though?

I think we know the answer to that already...

Community-Based Accelerators

I like it.  I believe in it.  In fact, I chat regularly with folk at the Centre for Social Innovation, MaRS, and various public servants/social innovators about how we can support and expand this model.
One thing that I think is missing, though - with a strict focus on supporting the best and commercializing world-class ideas and innovations, we're creating an exclusionary field that's neglecting some broader opportunities.
While yes, we want to support the next Google, the reality is that most entrepreneurs are never going to hit that scale.  There's nothing wrong with this; SMEs (small to medium enterprises) contribute massively to our economy and provide valuable services.  They can even be creative; it's not uncommon for great innovations like left-handed scissors or hush-ups get developed this way. 
I'm going to reiterate that point for a second so that it really sinks in - entrepreneurs with purpose can often innovate solutions that policy changes can't. 

Here's another example - a hip-hop artist from Lawrence Heights has an idea for a youth entrepreneurship centre that would offer safe space, resource access, admin assistance, business forms, a library and some training/mentorship for local folk who want to start a business. 
This could be a bicycle shop or a cleaning service or an App for a smartphone - there are various ways to make the model work.
Jaydahmann came up with this idea out of conversations he's had with youth in the community - they don't need another basketball camp or barbeque and are disenfranchised with one-off summer jobs that don't provide the experience that supports career growth.
It's not "world class" stuff, perhaps, but ideas like this can make a big difference on the ground, when properly supported.
So why don't we do that?  If we can have Campus-Linked-Accelerators, why can't we have Community-Based Accelerators as well?

In fact, that's not far off ideas being discussed by Toronto City Council candidates like Andray Domise and Terri Chu.  It's an idea that's been raised by Toronto Youth Council as well.
The obvious first question is, "how will this thing make money?"
Accelerators tend to have rigorous processes designed to weed out those who aren't properly prepared.  I have never been comfortable with this idea; it's a bit like telling kids who's grades aren't perfect that they're not allowed to attend school.
If we can provide additional support for youth in school so that they too might succeed, we can do the same for business or community organization ideas.  In fact, that's a bit of what My SoJo aims to do and what RaiseAnAim is working on as well - helping people get their ducks in a row, line up funding and support the necessary admin stuff through government to result in successes.
Will all of them succeed?  No - but that's no different than where we are now.  Particularly in marginalized communities (or Neighbourhood Improvement Areas) people are being left behind - they're less employed, at greater risk for poverty, crime and illness and ultimately, cost the social system more.  Whoever participates would at the very least walk away with skills, contacts and practical experience they wouldn't have otherwise.

We need to change the view of entrepreneurship as just being a way to generate big revenue, but also being a tool for raising the social floor.  There are existing funding streams at all levels of government that could get behind this; there are existing champions at the community and political level; heck, there are even private-sector partners who would probably jump at the chance to support initatives like this with either dollars or in-kind service donation (speakers, mentors, etc).
It's Corporate Social Responsibility for them, brand-building, employee engagement and can even be R&D.  If a local kid comes up with a good idea on a small scale, it's kind of what big businesses do to figure out how to make that idea explode.
I for one would love to see Community-Based Accelerators happen; the potential benefits are enormous while the costs aren't really anything we're not pay for already in one form or another.
If only there was an accelerator I could bring this idea to, eh?

The Whistle Stops Here: Where's the Referee in Parliament?

I'm no expert on Parliamentary proceedings.  Like most Canadians, I think Parliament is proceeding very poorly.  Questions aren't answered, information is not shared, legitimate requests are shot down with school-yard retorts.
When the Leader of the Official Opposition asks a question about Canada's military commitment overseas, gets a snide come-back instead of anything approximating a legitimate answer and the only answer the Speaker can provide is "hey, don't look at me" - then something is decidedly wrong with the system.
It's not the Speaker's job to hold government to account - that's Parliament's job.  The problem is that Parliament is government - the party with the majority of seats, anyway.  Or in theory.  Truth be told it's a select few cabinet ministers, the PM and a retinue of unelected partisans who actually shape the agenda.
Accountability has left the building.  The referee is looking after his own interests.  The enforcers now own the rink - and they're not interested in playing the game, but in knocking out the competition.  The audience is an afterthought.
The question is, how do we get accountability back?
There's only one way, really - the audience has to step up from the sidelines and demand better.


Wednesday 24 September 2014

Lego my City! A Great Idea for Co-Design

Smart.  Lego is something accessible - you don't need to have a masters in engineering or city planning to see how blocks fit together to make a complex whole, and what that whole will look like.
As a citizen, you can more readily see how a given framework will impact you and offer comment based on that, not on dense reports full of jargon.
You can also test out more things in advance - is a space wheelchair accessible?  Is a layout too confusing for easy navigation, requiring additional signage?
Empower people to be part of the process and you get better results. 
Then everyone gets to say, we did build that.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

The Death of Parliament

The purpose of Parliament is to hold Government - the Queen and her Ministers - to account.  That's why Parliament exists; MPs represent constituents and hold government to account on their behalf.
Yet here we have a government formed from the political party with the most MPs in the House, elected by a minority of eligible voters in Canada, essentially giving the finger to Parliament.
Our representatives.
Asked a serious question about a war that Canada is engaging in - one which will have repercussions for Canadian families and may result in retaliatory strikes on Canadian soil - the Prime Minister's errand boy retorts with, in essence, "I'm the king of the castle and you're the dirty rascal."
Even worse - the Speaker, who's job it is to keep Parliament functioning properly, has clearly decided he know which side his bread is buttered on.  The arbiter of the people's interest has sided with the king.
That's how this government responds to Parliament - with contempt.  They do not feel beholden to Parliament; if anything, they see Parliament as a straw man.  One can't but feel bad for Peter Milliken.
I don't care how you feel about Tom Mulcair, the NDP or for that matter, the governing Conservatives - if you condone this sort of practice or "don't care" about the functioning of Parliament, then you frankly don't care about democracy.  Or how the PM spends our money.  Or how he puts our soldiers, and ourselves, at risk.
We are sold propaganda; legitimate criticism is shot down, defunded or accused of treason.  Yet it's us who have decided we can't see the short-term ROI on getting informed and getting engaged.
Such is not democracy.  Our Prime Minister has become king; we let it happen.
That is the price we pay for indifference.


God's Work and the Knowledge Economy

It was four years ago that I was told by a then-prominent GR strategist that all things mental health was God's Work - as in, something mortals wouldn't be bothering with, and therefore did not present a business opportunity.
What I said then is the same thing I say now - that as we shift from a predominantly industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy, mental health would inevitably be re-framed from a sad reality on the periphery of society to a barrier to economic and social functioning. 
It's about more than "crazy" people or reactive treatment to conditions.  Mental health, like all health, is impacted by our physical environment and interactions with others; as such, mental illness can be accrued.
Beyond this, there's the non-illness side; we hear more and more about the need for innovation, improved communication, improved workplace culture, civic engagement, so on and so forth.  How do you motivate and catalyze all this stuff?  Well, how does motivation work in the first place?
This isn't an art - it's a science.  If you don't believe in science, though - if you think being tough or ruthless is all it takes to get ahead in this world, and to hell with the weak - you're not buying this.  In fact, you're actively undermining these facts because they aren't convenient for you.
Survival isn't about being tough, though - it's about being adaptable.  It's as true for industries and societies as it is for individuals.
The trouble is, this big-picture stuff can't be reduced to bullet-points or short-term ROI reports.  It's not a service in search of a market - it's a reality that people have to accept.
We're starting to get there, as this indicates.  But we have a long, long way to go.

Monday 22 September 2014


Thirteen years ago today, my father-in-law died due to complications from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  It was the end of a decade-long battle that ravaged his body, ended both his income-earning years and took a heavy toll on at his family.
They never knew whether the latest hospital stay would be the last.  Long hours were spent traveling to the hospital in Ottawa from Cornwall, where they lived.  They racked up hundreds of dollars in parking fees.
My father-in-law's mood shifted with the chemo and with the slow erosion of the life he had hoped to live.  The life he had worked so hard to build as an immigrant fleeing from Maoist China, a new Canadian working tirelessly to build a family business with his brothers and putting in long hours so as to support his family were all reduced to frail form that felt itself a burden more and more with each passing day.
Cancer does that to people.  It's a weight that bears down more and more with each passing day, year after year.  His family still carry the emotional scars of his slow decline and final passing.  The anxiety and depression that developed over time now impacts their every relationship. 
Whenever I hear that someone has been diagnosed with cancer, my heart goes out to them and their family.  It doesn't matter who they are, nor what they have done in their lives; cancer is a great equalizer that way.
It doesn't matter how strong you think you are - cancer is a disease of the community.  We can only beat it - and we have to beat it - if we fight it together.

Sunday 21 September 2014

What OpenGov and Steve Roger's Notebook Have in Common

Captain America: Winter Soldier is a film that speaks to our times. 

The security apparatus meant to keep seas of troubles from lapping at our shores is impeding internal flow as well; the State cure doesn't always seem better than the national threat disease.  Lies are told to justify incursions, or to countenance support for bad people, etc.  The State creeps in to the data back end of the people as its own doors get firewalled shut. 
Which is why there was something so appealing about a man out of time, a soldier with an unwavering code of personal ethics and a focus on empowering and trusting people, not controlling them.  The idea that this figure would be vulnerable, open to ideas on what he needed to know to get up to speed with the times was a brilliant stroke by the directors/writers.
Best part about crowd-sourcing Steve Rogers' list of things to catch up on - they took one basic theme and empowered people from around the world to crowd-source and vote on their top localized items.
It was a bit of engagement, a bit of sharing and a whole lot of community, all catalyzed by this idea of an historical (or comic-book historical) figure coming back to help society renew its sense of societal ownership and community engagement.  Everyone added their unique voice to a whole and the people's choice ended up reflected right there on the screen.
Which is kind how Open Gov and Open Data are supposed to work. 
The big trouble Open Gov folk have is knowing where to start - they have a lot of data, and need to know which sets to work on first.  Getting people to understand the power of Open Data and request sets that matter to them is a big, unresolved challenge - so far.
So here's a question.  The idea of crowd-sourcing the kinds of data people want open first is tricky, because the concept is so unusual to them.  But if people were to make recommendations on what someone else might want access to - someone who's back in our world after time away, perhaps - the recommendation levels might come up.  You're helping that person who's out of time, literally.
There are plenty of firms that could do something like this out there, domestically and internationally - gamify open data direction consultations.
The questions is, who would be our Captain America?