Open Cities Toronto 2007

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Recently Open Cities Toronto 2007 gathered several dozen people to visualize how a more open Toronto could advance culture, business, and productive collaborations. The event took place at the Center for Social Innovation - itself a fascinating incubator for social change - and built on one of the more active BarCamp communities globally, with several "TorCamp" events each month.

“I dream of a city where all community leaders become talented gardeners. We need to nurture people so that ideas and actions can emerge and grow in a co-operative and collaborative garden. Saying that you are open and inclusive is not enough; technology or intent is not enough. Leaders must guide, support, facilitate and get their hands dirty in the garden.”
- Bryce Johnson

“An Open City is where one person’s creative expression plus another’s does not equal that of two people, but of three at least.”
- Andrew Chiu

In the morning, Open Cities Toronto 2007 was energized with small group discussion: sitting at a table with 3 to 6 random and diverse others, and sharing why you're there and what you'd like to work on for the rest of the day. It was a great way to break the ice, and many ideas were hatched that came up again later.

Next up was a "speed geek". It works like this: 10 presenters, with an audience of half a dozen people per presenter; 5 minutes to get the gist, and then each audience shifts to the next presenter. Presenters included on opening up street vending, I Want Rhythm on dancing to ambient street sounds, Wireless Toronto on free WiFi, Seneca's upcoming Free Software and Open Source Symposium, Pedestrian Sundays, and Toronto Transit Camp. A great heuristic - at the end of an hour, you've connected with 10 innovative projects and the sharp people behind them, and gotten to know the people in your "rotating group" through their questions.

“I dream of a city where people who have common interest or common cause can find each other easily and effectively, and that’s well-connected to other cities around the world.”
- Misha Glouberman

“My dictionary defines open as not closed or locked or blocked up; allowing entrance or passage or access. I dream of a city where groups, decisions and structures are judged on that basis. Where architecture, politics, art, justice, business and life are neither closed, locked or blocked up. Where these things, the city itself, are open for everyone’s benefit.”
– Patrick Dinnen

The second half of the day loosely followed an Open Space format, with four main roles:

1) Convener: start a session.
2) Participant: take part in a whole session.
3) Bumblebee: cross-pollinate, wander around, go from this to that.
4) Butterfly: hang out, read a book, talk to a friend - it's totally OK if you don't want to stop a sparking conversation, and great talks in the hallway are as much part of the process as the "official" sessions.

Of course, there was also the usual "law of 2 feet": if you're not learning or contributing, you must leave and enable self-selection to create a critical mass of mutual sparks. If half the people are staying in a conversation just because they're trying to be polite, the sparks won't ignite, and you can always claim the "bumblebee" role to avoid giving offense.

The convener role is critical. Obviously the first requirement is to get a mix of interesting, experienced, passionate people in the same room (which certainly happened here). Then, realize that you can convene a session even if you're not the world's expert in it - it could be something you want to find out about, or talk about in a structured way, as long as you are passionate enough about it. Notes must be taken! (You don't have to take them, but get someone to take them.)

“I dream of an open and profoundly global city, where hundreds of open communities of interest, practice, proximity, culture and values actively participate in the co-creation of place, culture and meaning.”
- Mark Kuznicki

“I dream of a city where technology has strengthened democracy, and has bridged the political gap between citizens and decision-makers, empowering the individual and the community in ways never before realized; I dream of supplying people with tools for action.”
- Kevin Bracken

So, did this work to get a good set of sessions? Mostly. The session proposals started with a more focused set of proposals, and then trailed off a bit toward the end, needing stimulus from the MC to get the last third or quarter out. (Perhaps two rounds of session proposals could be tried. After the first round talks, people will have more ideas and a higher comfort level with the group - so come together halfway through and reflect, and then do additional second half proposals.)

The sessions themselves were far too voluminous to summarize here, but it's fair to say that there were interesting conversations happening most of the time, and promising ideas and initiatives were hatched. Topics included mapping what "open" means (axes like focus vs cross-pollination, works vs needs fixing, personal gain vs social gain), balancing egalitarianism vs encouraging excellence, Nuit Blanche interactive exhibits, "dead media" a la McLuhan, creating videos by tying together half-minute segments from around the world, Torontopedia, why Toronto has such a strong BarCamper culture and how it could be encouraged, creating an open-source chamber of commerce, open sharing of best practices, and making Toronto a center for open software and culture in keeping with its rich ethnic diversity. (For more details, see the Participant Notes.)

“I dream of Toronto as a magnet and showcase for the growing movement for ‘open’. It’s known world wide for its cutting edge open source software companies, groovy mash up artists and culture mixers, innovative schools experimenting with open curriculum (written by teachers and students), beautiful public spaces and streetscapes, and so much more. Toronto is the place to be for ‘open’.”
-Mark Surman

“I dream of a culture where there are no boundaries. One in which everyone interacts in a positive way with each other. I dream of open dialogs between friends, strangers, politicians and enemies alike.”
– Rochelle Latinsky

In the wrap-up, the background theme was "the world needs dreamers, and the world needs doers, but above all the world needs dreamers that do". Several people spoke about actions they planned to do:
- set up sessions on an Open-Source Chamber of Commerce for Toronto
- make Torontopedia more voluminous
- build a simple wearable computer (e.g. hat with camera & microphone) to better record unconferences like this in the future
- follow-up with specific people re matching competencies and businesses
- build database of creative interventions and cool projects in Toronto
- spread the word about events like TorCamp and OpenCities
- go to the follow-up BBQ
- plan Open Cities Toronto 2008!

It was a fun, productive event, and certainly worth running on a regular basis and scaling up. Perhaps the best way to end is via more of the participants' "Open Cities Dreaming":

“I dream of a city where communities and individuals feel empowered to pursue their hopes, and are capable of achieving them through collective values, resources and access. Where people, technologies and ideas alike become platforms for possible futures. I dream of an open culture fueled by empathy, integrity and passion, where critical conversations cascade into transformation.”
– Michele Perras

“In my dream Toronto, the dynamic, creative, healthy and brave society communicates effectively and across old ‘discipline’ barriers, and then brings its own best ideas to life in a seeming instant. One hesitates to speak of ‘efficient dreaming,’ but this fantasy Toronto is envied by the world not only for its tendency to muse about its future form—as it already does, powerfully—but for being uniquely ready to implement the innovations and improvements born of its citizens’ imaginings.”
– Kate Lawrie

“I dream of a city where the physical, technological and political infrastructure enables citizens to create their own projects or contribute to those that are ongoing – be they private, public or non-profit. Where decision making is as flat as and transparent as possible so that an Open City both nourishes and draws from its most valuable resource: its citizens.”
– David Eaves

“I dream of a city that makes its own fun; a built environment that whispers subtle invitations for creative intervention. In my city, each person is both dreamer and doer, and the familiar is continuously rediscovered through the actions of countless hearts and minds at play.”
– Kelly Seagram

“I dream of a city where fun, creativity, and work are all the same thing; a city of believers of magic and those who make dreams come true for themselves and others. People making up a global culture integrating technology, art and community, learning and teaching simultaneously.”
- Lori Kufner

The open city I dream of is principled, curious, and brave: it works as well as it plays, asks hard questions and pursues difficult answers over easy ones, welcomes controversy rather than repressing (or shying away from) dissent, rewards honesty, respects privacy, upholds responsibility at the personal and collective level, protects the weak as well as the strong, admits its likes and dislikes, and listens to the quietest of voices.
- Amy Lavender Harris

“Openness: horizontality. mutability. creativity. mobility. flexibility. replicability. responsibility. transparency. intimacy.
Open city: a self-aware city, a city of feedback, where democracy is a verb, its etymology open for revision. Where all citizens have access, and where citizen means only that: living in a city.
A city of ferment, which reacts to threats by relaxing, not tensing. Civic judo.
An erosion of distinction between government and governed, economy and culture, have and have-not, I and The Other. Public spaces, decision-making processes, and doors to decent housing, sustainable transit, and meaningful work open to all.
A city of networks, not pyramids. A city of a thousand city halls.”
– Mike Smith