The spark remains unlit. At one point our previous mayor tried to brand London as “The City of Opportunity.” In retrospect, this is a failure to acknowledge the great work that is being done today in our city.
For as long as I’ve lived here, London Ontario has had an identity crisis. The departure of the finance and insurance industry in the 60s and the collapse of manufacturing in the early 2000s caused part of the problem. Every time London tries to craft a new identity, the world changes and that identity crumbles.
We’re left comparing ourselves to others. “If only we had a tech community like Waterloo,” or “if we had a booming commodity industry like Calgary, we would be stronger.” While our amazing medical community has been a constant presence, I think there’s a hesitancy to pin our city’s identity on a publicly-funded system. After all, it’s dangerous to link our prosperity to something that requires taxes. Without prosperity in other areas, there’s no base to tax.
So we continue searching. Four years ago, the ReThink London process concluded with 15,000 Londoners providing input into what they envision for their city. I was very excited by this plan and asked our city council to ignite the spark that lay dormant in our city. The video of this plea is below.
Almost four years later, the spark remains unlit. The current council and civic leadership made some strides (the Dundas Flex street), but also some decisions that illustrated a lack of vision (Light Rail being scuttled is an example of this failure).
I think the reason that we continue to struggle is that we do not have a vision or identity for our city. After all, how can we expect our civic leadership to align our priorities when there are disparate views on what the city should look like?
Within this community, and particularly at rTraction, our awareness of the problem is not new. For example, we created “London For the Win” in the late 2000s to try to raise awareness of the great things going on in our city.
This is something that’s been on my mind for quite a while, and I think I accidentally discovered what our city’s brand identity is. I’m fundraising for a project to try to explore it. The idea came forward while listening to web.isod.es’ “Towards London” podcast, and the more I look at our city and talk to people, the more I am convinced this is a narrative that has legs.
From London’s agrarian roots to the founding of trust companies (and cooperatives and collaborative impact projects) to the life changing research at our area hospitals to the explosion of digital media companies in the region, there’s one common thread that links London together: Human Innovation.
In short, London comes together to make human life better. Before I go any further, I want to make an important distinction here. I’m not talking about our civic leadership or civic administration - sometimes they fit into the box, sometimes they don’t, sometimes moving us forward, sometimes backwards. I’m talking about the people who show up every day to work in London.
If you’d like to follow the journey to my conclusion, then I’d invite you to consider the following:
Towards London is a podcast, from Adam Caplan and Shobhita Sharma, that celebrates innovative leaders across London’s industrial landscape.
London has a unique asset in Pillar Nonprofit Network. No other community has a resource like this; some communities are trying to follow the template, but Pillar has existed for 16 years and has a couple of key wins worth highlighting here:
Pillar succeeded in raising a community bond for Innovation Works for $1 million in a matter of months. Innovation Works had filled its private desks and offices within the first year of operation, a milestone I thought would take 3-5 years to achieve.
London’s Child and Youth Network is a collaborative of over 400 organizations focusing on improving the health of children across four priority areas: ending poverty, making literacy a way of life, healthy eating and healthy physical activity, and creating a family-centred service system.
Employment Sector Council (ESC) is a community of 50+ organizations engaged in excellence in employment and training service delivery, working together to ensure the expertise of each member is available to all.
Libro, a co-operative credit union, has increased its portfolio from 2.2 to 7.2 Billion dollars, growing prosperity across the region.
London also has a deep history of giving, philanthropy, and collaborative problem solving, with the Ursuline Sisters and Sisters of St. Joseph serving as strong examples.
Coalitions of employers are focusing on efforts of inclusion through Ability First (employers focusing on hiring and retaining people with disabilities) and Living Wage London (employers committed to paying employees a living wage).
London is the first community in Ontario to try ranked ballots.
This community rallied around a crowdfunding effort for Prom Queen, meeting the original goal in less than 24 hours and ultimately raising twice as much.
Last, but not least, Project Play just wrapped up a 6 year initiative with a grande finale of donating 175 board games to the local London library system.
I believe that nature seeks a balance, and our conservative financial roots in London have been counterbalanced. That counter force is social innovation. I believe when you have tension in a population, properly channeled, it causes the best work of those at the edges of the spectrum and a sort of renaissance for those living in the middle of the tension.
Under the artistic direction of Dennis Garnhum, the Grand Theatre’s focus on telling our regional stories and producing/showcasing Canadian content is an example of how this renaissance is manifesting itself in our arts and culture community. When you cross that (and my earlier observations) with the fact that 10% of Deloitte’s fastest growing companies were from London (whereas we have 1% of the population of the country) AND that London’s hosting the 2019 Juno Awards, it becomes fairly easy to create a compelling case for a sort of renaissance, doesn’t it?
So what do you think, London? We’ve been called the City of Opportunity - are we actually the City of Human Innovation? Here is a video further outlining my case:
If you’d like to support me in figuring this out, please consider backing my Indiegogo Project "London's brand story - Human Innovation" to explore this idea and tell the story of social innovation in our city.
I will close with a somber thought and a hopeful one. Our next election cycle is not going to light the spark, either. As polite Canadians, we look to government and other authorities to solve the problem for us. They’re not going to.
As such, here’s a set of flint and steel. Go ignite the spark. Stop waiting for someone else to do it. The tinder is there, the fire pit is ready. Our community is fuelled with energy just under the surface. I am trying to send sparks flying with the work I’m doing with rTraction and the Roundhouse, and you should, too.