The Messy Unfinished Project of Living Together

Willowridge Towers by AshtonPal
"Willowridge Towers" by AshtonPal

In each Spur city, we will select a Canadian from the local community who is under 35 and interested in public policy, journalism or serious non-fiction writing. The Public Fellow attends all the Spur festival events in his or her city, and takes the pulse of Canadians on the topics being pursued, by engaging the speakers and audiences (in-person, online and through social media) on the ideas they bring to the festival. Below is an examination of the themes of the 2014 Spur festival, seen through the eyes of our Toronto Public Fellow.

If there was a single theme or signal that emerged from the signals and noises of Spur Toronto 2014, it was an examination of the messy, unfinished project of living together. As individuals choosing to live in a society, polity or collective, the festival forced us to consider how we should navigate and negotiate the challenges of living together well. These challenges were interrogated from multiple angles: how should governments and corporations exercise power over individuals? How should we as humans impact our physical world? And how should we manage and govern our economies?

In the great civic space of the Toronto Reference Library’s Appel Salon, Spur Toronto kicked off with a fascinating panel discussion on ‘Who Owns our Secrets?’. Torontonians came out in droves to air concerns about governments and corporations accessing our data without our consent or knowledge and to ask about possible solutions. As the discussion drew to a close and the band started warming up for the after party, Dr. David Lyon observed that, although the word “privacy” had been used all evening, it had really acted as a catch-all term for lots of things that have always been at stake in democracies.

Other events also explored the exercise of public and private power over individuals. In the airy glass space of the Gardiner Museum, Torontonians were introduced to the concept of a ‘Nudge Unit’. Instead of persuading or incentivizing citizens to do things, we learned that governments can ‘nudge’ citizens to do things that they already want to do. Initiatives to help people save more money, eat more fruit and veggies, and pay their taxes on time were canvassed. Audience members expressed skepticism, however, about corporate nudges and governments’ motives in nudging certain types of behaviour over others (e.g. the law in certain U.S. states requiring women to have ultrasounds before providing them access to abortions).

Spur also challenged festival go-ers to confront the reality of how we live in our physical environment. In a packed atrium at U of T’s Rotman School of Management, architect Brigitte Shim made the case for urban densification in Toronto. With an eye to ‘This City in Seven Years,’ she argued for more diverse urban habitations, such as laneway homes, and for the revitalization of our suburbs by immigrants. Also tackling our physical impact on the world, former Chief Commissioner of Australia’s now-defunct Climate Commission, Tim Flannery took the conversation global with a surprisingly optimistic presentation on climate change. Looking back seven years and projecting ahead another seven, Flannery made specific, actionable proposals for how we can avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate change, such as phasing out coal power (which he praised Ontario for doing) and ensuring citizens have access to clear undisputed facts about climate change (which he cited Australia’s Climate Council as providing).

The management and governance of our economy was also a hot topic at Spur. Given the key role that media plays in our democracy, journalist Dean Starkman criticized business media for failing to warn citizens about the 2008 financial crisis. He argued for more accountability journalism, in style of Ida Tarbell’s early 20th century takedown of Standard Oil, and fewer puff pieces. Starkman pointed out that financial institutions are uniquely sensitive to media coverage and that, therefore, journalism still matters. A panel discussion entitled ‘Big Data and the Resilient Economy’ (which I expected to be about how spreadsheets full of data can help smart people make better trades) surprised me by focusing on how ethical considerations can be baked into our economic thinking. Once again, panelists gave specific, actionable ideas for Spur audience members to take away on how to hold their pension funds to account for their holdings and how to re-align interests in financial institutions in a way that benefits the consumer by, for example, forcing corporate disclosure to include environmental practices and Board attendance.

Our struggle to live together was also explored through art. Three new novels were showcased at Spur Toronto: Ghalib Islam’s dystopian debut, “Fire in the Unnameable Country,” Cecil Foster’s homage to his homeland, “Independence,” and Sean Michael’s tender portrait of a Soviet inventor and musician in “Us Conductors.” All three works explore the interplay between the individual and society; specifically, the extent to which a nation, government, or group shapes, constrains or enhances an individual’s identity and sense of self. The topic was often tackled with artistic levity: a rap battle between an ethical oil spokesman and a beat poet highlighted very different views of how we should use Canada’s natural resources, while a stand-up comedian described, in hilarious detail, the challenge of maintaining his friendship with an old friend after she became a mother. The topic was also engaged with seriousness: a British short film on homelessness forced festival go-ers to confront the prevalence of substance abuse and prostitution on our streets, while a riveting panel discussion on the ethics of war photography showed Torontonians the young, human faces of American soldiers in the Middle East and explained the political realities tangled up in showing real images of conflict.

After an exhilarating four days, Spur Toronto left my brain buzzing with ideas and my heart warmed with compassion for my fellow Torontonians. We are a passionate, intelligent, dynamic group of citizens, all doing our best to live together as well as we can on the same strip of chilly lakefront. And while the festival was full of spirited debate about how to refashion our politics and institutions, a surprising point of agreement emerged: an author (Ghalib Islam), an architect (Brigitte Shim), and a scientist (Tim Flannery) all think that this city needs more bike lanes. Are you listening, Mayor Ford?


Jessica is an active member of her community, volunteering at the Pro Bono Law Ontario clinic at the Superior Court and volunteering on municipal and federal political campaigns. As a fixture of the rush ticket line at the National Ballet of Canada, member of an all-female book club, TIFF enthusiast and member of the AGO, she is also a great lover of our civic arts scene.

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