On stage at OnPoint: An argument from culture

Me providing (unpaid) plug of OGO Carshare on stage. Photo credit: Deon Nel Photography

Urban Systems rounded out their series of workshops on housing, the economy, and climate with their fourth and final workshop on Transportation. The evening focused on thinking about how transportation could enable vibrancy in the community.

I shared the panel with autonomous vehicle enthusiast Joseph Hlady and Lisa McIntosh, one of the founders of Urban Harvest Organic Delivery. You can read a bit of a roundup of each of points of view in the Kelowna Capital News.

As you can see, there was a bit of diversity on the stage. Lisa McIntosh was closer to my position of less car usage overall, but Joseph Hlady went a completely different direction. He painted a wondrous if ambiguous future of autonomous vehicles providing last-mile transportation support to the elderly and disabled. His vision had people using automated rideshare, rather than purchasing their own cars. Of course, he neglected to say what international venture-backed behemoth would inevitably own these vehicles.

He argued from the perspective of efficiency, how automated cars would mean less vehicles on the road, and from safety (less auto accidents) and accessibility. To me, this came off as just arguing for a more efficient version of the terrible system we already have, rather than a more radical vision of what we need.

Joseph argued against light rail and other forms mass transit, and actually argued that AVs would allow Kelowna to remain spread out. This floored me and many people in the audience. We just spent the last 3 sessions of OnPoint talking about YIMBYism, and the need to densify.

Me furious writing notes while Joseph talks.
Me furiously writing notes while Joseph talks. Photo credit: Deon Nel Photography

A future of every individual being whizzed around in little tin cans is exactly the opposite of what I argued for on stage. My position is that we need to abandon car culture, the real cause driving our current disastrous environmental, economic and social transportation system.
Continue reading “On stage at OnPoint: An argument from culture”

Thoughts on Citizen Energy

The “right to the city” is described by David Harvey as:

The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

Although it was a bit of a slog, I enjoyed the ideas presented in his book Rebel Cities, and have continued to think about how I as a citizen can play an active role in the shaping of my city’s development. Thus, I was very excited to welcome Kusunoki Masashi of Citizen Energy Ikoma to come and speak about how his group put solar panels on the rooves of public buildings. see previous post about the talk.

What Japan and Germany have been doing

Japan is particularly vulnerable when it comes to energy disruption since it needs to import more than 80% of its energy requirements (if you want to know more in excruciating detail, see my master’s thesis on the topic). But the 2011 Fukushima disaster was a massive blow. The 9.0 Tōhoku earthquake caused a tsunami which triggered the nuclear meltdown causing nearly 16,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. Five years later, Japan is still heavily engaged in the cleanup. In the wake of the disaster, all 50 of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down. Starting last year, despite much public protest, the Abe Administration has begun restarting nuclear power plants.

In the meantime there have been a number of citizen-led movements for safer, more resilient energy resources similar to Citizen Energy Ikoma. Many are inspired by the experience of Germany. As part of the Energiewende (“Energy Transition”), decentralizing and democratizing energy production has been a key effort. Municipalities and citizens have been taking back energy utilities and in 2012, one in sixty Germans was an energy producer. The number of energy coops has risen to over 1000 in 2015.

german_energy_cooperatives

The Energiewende policy started in 2010, but after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany set policy to shut off all its nuclear reactors by 2022. (The Energiewende is a very complex topic beyond the scope of this post. If you want an overview, check out this dispatch in FP and this National Geographic piece.)

Using our right to our city

Distributed energy supply, disaster-proofing resilient communities, and fighting climate change at the local level… it is all pretty inspiring stuff and makes me think about how this can be applied to my own city.

Kelowna gets about 305 days of sun a year, with 1950 hours of bright sunshine. Plus it gets very little snowfall: only about 5 days a year with more than 5cm, and 1.4 days with more than 10. (data) What this means is that we have a lot of flat rooves. All that flat area and all that sunshine makes for a good argument for putting solar panels everywhere.

Just this summer Kelowna City Hall replaced its roof. What if they had installed solar panels up there? Scratch that: what if we installed solar panels up there? How many other public buildings, schools and open areas could be used towards these ends? If the city does not have the capacity to do this, Ikoma and all the other cities in Japan and Germany prove that we as citizens can. They serve as examples of how to use our right to the city.

Citizen Energy

On Sunday (18 Sep) we had a special guest give a talk about how citizens installed solar panels on public institutions in Ikoma City, Japan. Kusunoki Tadashi is a boardmember of Citizen Energy Ikoma (市民エネルギー生駒), a citizens group who took the fight against climate change into their own hands by leveraging public space to produce electricity locally. They put solar panels on the rooves of public buildings decreasing the local carbon footprint, and used the profits of the excess electricity sold back to the utility into other public projects. Mr Kusunoki spoke for about 30 minutes telling us about the groups story, its objectives and business model, and the status of the three projects that they have completed so far.

ikoma map

Ikoma, a 200,000 person bedroom town between Osaka and Nara City, has a particularly eco-friendly history. It is aiming to be the most most energy efficient municipality in Japan. Citizen Energy Ikoma (CEI) was founded in 2013 and was the first in Nara Prefecture to execute such an energy initiative. They set out on this program with a few things in mind: First, they wanted the initiative to be citizen-funded. There was to be no money from government agencies or banks, and no corporate interests at play. They collected a lot of small contributions (in about $1000 increments) from private citizens. More than 70% of the contributions were from Ikoma locals. A second point was to involve retirees, to use “Silver Human Resources” (シルバー人材) as Mr Kusunoki put it. They wanted to empower retirees and show how they could give back to younger generations.

CEI worked with the city and secured space on the roof of a building at a local water treatment plant. They installed 273 solar panels at the cost of 17M yen (about $220K CAD). The installation was completed in March of 2014 and produces about 50kW of electricity.

The business plan was developed to extend over a 20 year period. The original citizen donors are able to get a small return (better than bank interest says Mr Kusunoki) on their $1000 investment. Profits from selling electricity back to the electricity utility go into new projects or programs. So far they have paid for signage at the children’s facility, power conditioners for the seniors home, and sponsored a number of environmental education initiatives including workshops for kids to learn how to make solar-powered cars and trains.

The success of the first installation lead to the development of two more facilities. In 2015 a new children’s facility (南こども園) was being built, and CEI was able to install 297 panels on the roof.

CEI also installed 224 panels on an open bank behind a senior’s facility. Both of these installations can produce about 50kW each, bring the combined total of all three facilities to 150kW. This removes about 55,000 kilograms of CO2 out of the air, and saves on about 40,000 barrels of oil per year.

The children’s facility was of particular interest to the CEI. It is an official Emergency Muster Point, meaning in the case of a disaster like an earthquake, it is deemed a safe place for people to retreat to. Having a ready-made energy supply at such a muster point is pragmatic strategy.

Mr. Kusunoki said that the future is bright for the children of Ikoma. They are trying to make Ikoma a model and promote it as the best place to live in the Kansai region. Their goal is to show how empowered citizens can create safe, local energy and contribute to a more resilient distributed energy supply chain in the case of a natural disaster. In the future the CEI is looking at how these initiatives can turn into second careers for retired people. Furthermore, they are exploring more ways having for citizens become local energy producers.

It was a pleasure to have Mr Kusunoki speak to us. It definitely encouraged me to think more about what we could do in our own communities (see my next post Thoughts on Citizen Energy). You can read more about what the CEI is doing in Ikoma here:

Why NOT Uber?

What do people really want when they say they want Uber to come to their community?

Once they learn about all the scandals, lawsuits, riots and demonstrations, the many lists of reasons not to use Uber, most people come away with a nuanced opinion. But typically, at first blush, many people have a very positive reaction to Uber. Why?

One reason could be the marketing. Uber is a poster child for the “sharing economy” — a feel-good marketing term that is inaccurate and “needs to die.” In his excellent book What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy author Tom Slee digs into the hopes and promises of the new rash of sharing economy companies, and shows how they fail to deliver and can actually damage our society.

A key objective of marketing is generating demand. Recently in Kelowna Uber Canada held two information sessions to “gauge interest”. Uber is really good at this. They turn their users into lobbyists, use social media effectively (see the recent province-wide #bc4uber hashtag campaign), and they get local governments to lobby on their behalf. As of last summer they had 250 lobbyists and 29 lobbying firms registered in capitols around the US. Earlier this year our provincial political leaders jumped on the bandwagon and spent money on their own ad campaign for the sharing economy.

Uber is able to get many people on its side through marketing, but that cannot be the only reason people like (at least the idea) of Uber. There seems to be some deep-seated dissatisfaction with the state of transportation as it is today.1 Let us examine some of these arguments.

Often Uber proponents say 1) taxis are expensive and there is no competition; 2) that they can never get a taxi when they need one; and 3) the Uber experience is better.
Continue reading “Why NOT Uber?”

Will Kelowna make it?

After years describing China to Americans, James Fallows has returned and is now explaining America to Americans. In his most recent feature in The AtlanticHow America Is Putting Itself Back Together” Fallows visits medium-sized cities and finds positive signs that America is not going to hell in a handbasket, despite what you might think looking at the fractious national politics and troubling economic signs. There are signs of success at a smaller, dare I say grassroots, scale.

In a sidebar to the feature, Fallows lists out eleven signs a city will succeed. Kelowna is a mid-tier city in Canada, and right in line with the types of cities Fallows examines in his piece. Let us see how it does on the “Fallows Scale of Municipal Success.”
Continue reading “Will Kelowna make it?”

New support for refugees in Kelowna — CBC Daybreak South interview

The Okanagan Refugee Coalition for Advocacy (ORCA) is a grassroots organization that aims to support the activities of all the neighbourhood groups in the Okanagan sponsoring individual refugee families. On average, it takes about 12 people to provide all the social and moral support needed by a single refugee family. We call these sponsor groups “support pods”. One key way we can support all the pods is coordinating common needs, for example organizing ESL classes or driving lessons. This way, each pod does not need to be re-inventing the wheel every time.

One of our current projects is managing volunteer coordination. We are building a centralized database of potential volunteers in the city that we can vet and then deploy to groups that need them. Furthermore, we need to recruit people keen on creating additional pods for more incoming families. There is an echo effect as newly landed refugees immediately ask if the sponsor group can also sponsor other family members who have been left behind in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, etc. There are many more Syrians that need our help.

Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRs) have a support pod built in by definition. But Government Assisted Refugees (GARs) do not. This creates a two-tier system that doesn’t benefit anybody. So, ORCA and the local sponsor organizations have always discussed a long-term vision of taking the care and support networks that have been prepared to support the PSRs, and extending it to the GARs.

No GARs have arrived in Kelowna yet, but with Vancouver asking to staunch the flow, GARs could theoretically be redirected here. And as with the PSRs, we could get very short notice. We want to be prepared. That is what this CBC interview is about.

If you want to help, sign up as a volunteer →

Helping Syrian refugees

Out of 11 million people diplaced during Syria’s five year long civil war, more than four and a half million are languishing in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and other countries. Many have been in the camps for years. At the end of October 2015, our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his intention to give sanctuary to 25,000 Syrian refugees. Not a large number compared to other countries, or even compared to Canada’s response to other refugee crises historically, yet this is still a large undertaking. Helping Syrian refugees is a massive national project and will take the support of many Canadians beyond the civil servants in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

I wanted to get involved. After some investigating and talking with friends involved, I joined ORCA.

ORCA_header

The Okanagan Refugee Coalition for Advocacy is a non-governmental group that connects neighbourhood groups sponsoring local refugee families with common services and advocates on their behalf to policymakers and the wider public. ORCA tackles issues on a project-by-project basis with special focus on things faced by every sponsorship group, for example vetting volunteers, organizing English as a Second Language training, and even securing driver’s licenses. ORCA’s role is to support the wider network of sponsor groups as needs arise.

There are currently 8 (known) groups sponsoring a couple of dozen families in the region (you can see short profiles of each group at orcabc.org). Sponsoring a family takes a lot of time and money. Usually, each family is supported by a dozen people. In most cases in the Okanagan these groups privately raise at least $30,000 to see the refugee family through their first year. So far we have not received any Government Assisted Refugees (GARs). Most are Privately Sponsored Refugees (PSRs) or a mix of government and private (BVOR: Blended Visa Office-Referred).

Meeting with these neighbourhood groups (we at ORCA call them “support pods”) I have been impressed with their variety and resilience. These are regular people without any special training trying to help other humans in need. To get a sense of what kind of people are in these groups, and what they talk about, listen to this short CBC documentary about a sponsor group in Toronto. Some of the topics that come up in pod meetings are very intense, leading to philosophical debate. Groups have differences in how they approach problems, but they are all doing excellent work, and I aim to support them in any way I can.

Since starting on this project, I have learned that many of the problems that refugees face are actually part of bigger social problems. The standout is housing. Securing homes for incoming refugees, which often arrive with just 24 hours of notice, has been the main challenge of sponsor pods so far. But this is in the context of a wider housing crisis. Kelowna is ranked “Severe” on the Canadian Housing Rental Index. More than a quarter of people here spend half of their income on rent, and availability is very tight (2.6% as of Apr 2015). Other centers in Canada are also suffering from the same problem. In the long-term, we are looking to tackle issues like this — issues that not only refugees face — in a more holistic manner. In the meantime, there is only a couple more months of intake and a whole lot of soon-to-be-arriving families on the horizon that need help.

If you are interested in helping too, please visit ORCA and get in touch. In general, sponsor pods need to solve the housing issue. If you have access to affordable housing, please let us know. Sponsor groups are also looking for people with professional skills (doctors, dentists, etc) willing to donate their time, as well as drivers to help with mobility, and of course potential employers. Things like clothes, furniture and toys are generally not needed. Vehicles are, especially vans for large families. Monetary donations are always welcome. Since we have no central fund, talk to an ORCA rep to find out where your money is most needed. If you want to dedicate the next year or so of your life and help a family, become a sponsor pod member or start your own pod! There are more and more families coming, and long term volunteers that get to know the families and shepherd them along in their journey are sorely needed. If you are looking for a new project, or are looking to do some good in the world, I can assure you that helping a Syrian (or any other nationality) refugee family is highly rewarding.

Downsizing

Library of books I never read — Fired!

Closet full of clothes I never wear — Fired!

Old couch and coffee tables taking up space in the living room — Fired!

Living room — Fired!

Credit card debt — Fired!

We’ve been downsizing. Over the past couple of years we have been removing ourselves from the systems of debt and consumerism and working towards living more sustainably. This has proven to be a long process, where one must question every part of one’s life. We are not anywhere near done yet, but we have been building momentum.
Continue reading “Downsizing”

In between worlds — thoughts from a short trip to Japan

Every time I come back to Japan I ask myself: could I live here again? I spent 8 years here. I met my wife here. Both of my daughters were born here. There is so much about this country that I enjoy. The infrastructure is great, the safety, helpfulness, richness of culture and history.

Yet, I don’t think I could live in Japan again. At least, not at this point in my life. And the reason is a simple one: community.

We have lived for 3 years in Kelowna. Since leaving my hometown at 18, this is the longest I have ever lived in one location. I am involved in a few different community groups including the startup community, Japanese immigrant community, the wider immigrant community, and others. Once my children are more independent, I plan on being involved in more. This year, my oldest daughter completed kindergarten. That has a whole new community, a long term one made up of teachers and best friends and other parents. I care about what goes on in my city, province and country, and think of myself as an active and engaged citizen. I cherish my right to vote, and can voice my opinion to my political representatives which I have pretty much all met at one time or another.

If we moved back to Japan, I would lose all of this.

My wife takes our daughters back about once a year and puts them in school for a month or so, that they might have some Japanese education. Walking the kids to school, listening to the daily recap from the teacher, attending assemblies — even though I am pretty fluent in Japanese, my outsider status is pretty apparent. Not having the same shared experiences, I cannot contribute to my full potential.

This year’s visit coincided with the Gion Festival, a month long series of events, dating back to 970CE, heralding the beginning of summer. Gion matsuri is one of Japan’s three major festivals and the pride of Kyoto. It is a hot sticky mess as the summer rainy season brings humidity and typhoons. Everyone looks forward to going out in the (slightly) cooler evening, admiring the 33 floats, running into neighbours, drinking and revelling. Families are out with younger children way past their bedtime. Teenagers run around, flirting and sneaking drinks. It is a real carnival atmosphere. The floats represent different city neighbourhoods and are maintained, built and paraded by the community members. There are months of preparations, meetings and dance practices, bringing the community together. Parade members are selected as representatives of their neighbourhoods. The participants are full of pride, and are looked on by their community members with pride. Although there is the occasional foreigner in the mix, they are inherently a “guest.” Experiencing Gion matsuri this year just reminded me of how difficult it is to integrate into a foreign society.

My 8 years in Japan were not as an “expat”, but as someone who intended to live their forever. I am fluent with the language, knowledgeable about history, know more about Japanese traditional culture than many Japanese, and kept up with domestic politics and economic issues. Even armed with all this knowledge, lacking a common experience with natives makes it exceedingly difficult to integrate completely. I think most lifers in Japan find a comfortable niche and make it work for them. This would have been my approach, had I chosen to stay.

These challenges in integration have given me a little insight into the immigrant experience, which has been very useful in Canada. My wife got her Canadian Permanent Residency over 5 years ago, yet there are still many struggles. She is grateful that I can understand her feelings and at the same time be her “inside man” when it comes to Canadiana. I enjoy helping other immigrants, not from a pedestal of privilege (as a white male) but as a pool of understanding, to be drawn upon if needed.

I am a collection of strange experiences, without any real special skill or knowledge. I have always been in between worlds, serving as connective tissue between different communities — stuck between Canada and Japan; between Eastern and Western Canada; technology and politics; nerds and “normies”; between the past and the future. Always cartilage, never the bone.

However, at this point in my late thirties, with all the connections to the local community that I have been building over the past few years, I am finally achieving a sense of long-term belonging. Japan is a wonderful place, a place that we Canadians can certainly learn from and aspire to in many things. But for now, I am content just visiting. I have much to live for at my home in Canada.

Summer 2015 in Japan

For those that are interested, here are a bunch of photos and videos from my trip to Japan this summer:

Who watches the watchers?

Full disclosure: I back CANADALAND on Patreon.

Turning a critical eye towards the national news media is an important and valuable endeavour. But the daily lives of Canadians are influenced far more by local news. Although Jesse Brown’s eps on Hamilton and New Brunswick are informative forays into local conditions (and how terrible they are), it is too much to expect Jesse to cover every local media landscape.

That is the reason I started the Kelowna news media audit. It is an attempt to start a discussion, and to map out our local news media landscape to discover where it serves us well, and where it is weak.

Often the newsmedia is the lens the citizenry uses to observe the doings of local government. Thus it is of vital importance that we as citizens are precisely aware of the condition of that lens. It is key to government and public relations, and vital to a healthy community.

My piece from last week has generated some discussion. I made an appearance on CBC Radio’s Daybreak South with host Chris Walker, and I met the editor of another local outlet for some one-on-one time. And of course there has been some interesting feedback via Twitter. Overwhelmingly many have asked: what’s next?

I am not sure if I want to take the mantle of “Okanagan’s Jesse Brown.” It is a matter of time and training (I have neither). But the media audit certainly did bring up a lot of questions, and some potential paths of research. For example:

  1. Historical analysis: I listed the number of reporters on the beat (which was problematic since “the beat” doesn’t really exist any more). I would be interested in comparing this current number to 5, 10, 15 years ago.
  2. What went down with Kelowna.com? I have talked to two members of that team and I would like to pursue this story. The fact they had 11 reporters backed by tech entrepreneurs makes this story fascinating to me. In the meantime, check out this writeup from one of its former reporters.
  3. Wider context: While I listed the outlets responsible for civic reporting, I did not bring up the city’s public relations department, or other ways a citizen can get information on civic issues. There are more contours to this landscape, and we should be aware of them all.
  4. Related to #3, 15% of our population is foreign-born (according to ancient stats from 8 years ago because we haven’t had a decent census — a topic for another day) but I only covered mainstream English-language outlets. How do our sizable South Asian, Filipino, Korean, Iranian and other minority communities get the news?
  5. Inspired by this tweet, it would be interesting to take attendance for media that show up to council (since apparently some only show up sporadically). Who shows up when, and during what discussions? What conclusions can we draw from this?
  6. Would the media orgs in the community be willing to have a round-table discussion about the landscape here? I would be willing to facilitate, if we couldn’t find a media scholar to do so. Such a discussion would be valuable to the community, methinks.

If there are any media studies or journalism students that would like to tackle these questions, or even just concerned citizens like myself, feel free to get in touch. Maybe we can work together to get a better handle on how we see our own community.