Does Calgary Have a Purpose?

Last week, I was part of a public consultation at the New Central Library, called Calgary On Purpose. The aim of this event was to gauge how Calgarians really feel about our city. Many have lamented that the failed Olympic Bid plebiscite, back in November, reflects not only a lack of consensus in Calgary, but also an absence of trust in government authorities. Since then, a small number of us have been working to identify the source of this disconnect between government policy and citizens’ needs. The work of Calgary On Purpose has been to discover and communicate a shared purpose for our city, built upon a culture of trust and empathy. The library event became our first attempt at breaking from traditional decision-making processes and truly listening to Calgarians.

At this point, I should probably take a leaf from my English lit background, and talk about the importance of terminology, and the power of language in shaping how we think. 1 The reason I didn’t write ‘public conversation’ at the New Central Library, is because this implies that I was having a loud, likely embarrassing, conversation in public; in other words, ‘public conversation’ is not how we refer to polling or canvassing – we say, ‘public consultation’. However, the word consultation implies two things: formality and expertise. The library event was neither of these. The whole idea behind Calgary On Purpose is to shift away from hierarchical modes of governance, towards a more informal and generally-accessible conversation. There are a few other terms that fall into this category: rebranding / narrating; stakeholders / citizens; and project / purpose. As with consultation, rebranding, stakeholders, and project come from the business world of profit maximization and corporate interests. Word-choice might sound trivial, but it’s crucial to acknowledge that the way we talk about policy reflects not only our intended audience, but also what we value. For instance, some might interpret the territorial acknowledgement policy as evidence of this claim.

No matter what words we use, though, I think it’s fair to say that most people, when greeted by doorbells and calls from canvassers, will cower beneath their windowsills until the noise stops. One of the reservations I had about this ‘public conversation’, was that I knew how much people hated being surprised by other people in uniforms with clipboards (and I didn’t want to be that person). After all, uniforms and clipboards are synonymous with policing, and policing generates fear and creates a power dynamic. We wanted to avoid this at all costs, which is why Kris, Colin, and I started drafting a prototype – which Kris, in the style of Arthur Laffer, drew on a napkin at Luke’s. The Forest of Cardboard, which we subsequently painted and planted in the library foyer, is the product of Kris’ “Four Value Frames for Prototyping”:

1. What do people want (to do)?

As it turns out, some people didn’t cower beneath their windowsills. Others preferred to hover, fleetingly, beside the signs, before making eye contact and darting away. As the stickies accumulated, more visitors were drawn to the boards – including one individual, who seemed bent on convincing me that Calgary was a horrible place, full of hypocrites (his responses include “BY ERROR MISTAKE” and “THE LAWS”). Others were more moderate and less defamatory, requesting “more opportunities in the social services; more accessible recreation areas; more accessible housing” and “free parking on Saturday”.

2. What parts of my design are essential?

Prototyping might be about more than duct tape – but, to quote Canadian icon, Red Green, duct tape is essential. The cardboard signposts gave people direction, and provided us with a framework to begin our public conversations. The makeshift feel of the taped-and-sharpied cardboard kept the conversations casual.

3. How does the bigger system react to your prototype?

When you’re downtown, you run the risks and benefits of attracting all types! Some of the library staff interacted with the installation, as well. The signs also became talking point for parents with young children, who submitted requests for an “ice cream ski hill”, “A SPAS SHUTL”, and “a way to connect beyond suburban living”.

4. What mindsets, assumptions and perspectives are we bringing to the problem? Are they sufficient?

This last question is the reason why we wrote ‘kids’ rather than ‘your kids’, and left openings for both positive, ‘what would make you stay’, and negative, ‘what would make you leave’, responses. The scale, which invited people to place a sticker on ‘scared’ and ‘excited’ ends, gave us some indication of how visitors were responding, emotionally, to our questions.

Considering that it was only a three-hour-long impromptu setup, most of the questions attracted substantial attention – with the exception of our Mad Libs question, “Welcome to Calgary, be part of the __”. Perhaps visitors were reluctant to engage with a narrative written by policymakers, and not by themselves . . . after all, the noun “energy”, with all of its political connotations, is already implied.

This is the real challenge for Calgary On Purpose: how do we remain grounded in our history – in our “Calgarian spirit”, as one sticky-poster put it – without devolving into a retelling of the same old, same old cowboy story? One theory is that storytelling, for Calgary, requires an expression of vulnerability, where we recognize our loss of purpose, and find a common language for hope. Ultimately, none of that has much to do with consultation, rebranding, projects, and stakeholders; rather, it has much more to do with narrating our purpose, and reclaiming our citizenship.

1. Please note that I do not subscribe to the theory of linguistic determinism, or the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which posits that a person’s mother tongue determines their worldview. I am merely pointing out that language is a powerful tool, with both cultural and political connotations.

Urban PolicySarah Hertz