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Q&A: Patricia McCarney, Canadian academic and champion of sustainable cities

October 30, 2020

Q&A: Patricia McCarney, Canadian academic and champion of sustainable cities

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Interview
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ISO 37120 Indicators for Sustainable Cities is the first international standard for city data. This standard helps municipalities measure the performance of city services and the quality of life. Canadian Patricia McCarney spearheaded the development of the standard, which was first published in 2014. She currently chairs ISO/TC 268/WG 2, the working group responsible for developing two further standards for cities – ISO 37122 Indicators for Smart Cities and ISO 37123 Indicators for Resilient Cities both published in 2019. This Working Group at ISO is currently working on the development of guidance documents to optimize the impact and inter-connectivity of this ISO 37120 Series for cities. She is President and CEO of the World Council on City Data (WCCD) and is a professor of Political Science and founder of the Global Cities Institute at the University of Toronto.

Q.

How do the standards field and academic world work together to make cities more sustainable and resilient?

A.

There is undoubtedly a linkage between the development of standards and the academic world. Both as a graduate student and then as a professor, I recognized the need for globally standardized data and systems if we were going to have a successful comparative development framework in the world.

I do feel that my background as a City Planner truly propelled my work within SCC and ISO. It was that first-hand experience working in, for example, African cities (in my role at the World Bank in Washington and in UN Habitat in Nairobi), and other cities across Canada, North America and Europe that led me to advocate for the development of the first ISO standard for city data – ISO 37120. While I have the privilege of working with many academics who specialize in cities and I am a Professor myself at the University of Toronto – I would say that practical experience working with, and for, cities was crucial in beginning my work with SCC and ISO.

Q.

You played an integral role in developing the newly published ISO 37120, the first International Standard for Cities. What was it like to go through that journey?

A.

In a word, long – but incredibly rewarding. My work, resulting in the publication of ISO 37120 in 2014, and two subsequent standards (ISO 37122 Indicators for Smart Cities and ISO 37123 Indicators for Resilient Cities) in 2019, what we now refer to as the ISO 37120 Series for Cities, began as far back as my Ph.D. dissertation in the early ’80s.

What I came to realize throughout my journey with SCC and ISO is that most impactful standards start with a clear and defined challenge. In this case, it was that while there was no lack of city data available, the fact was – none of this city data was standardized, so cities could not be compared and cities could not learn from each other. As simple a measure as emergency response time (i.e. do we measure the time from the 911 emergency call or from the time of dispatch of the emergency vehicle?), was measured differently from one city to another.

Working within the University of Toronto, we began our ISO journey in 2012 – having tested the indicators with over 250 cities across 80 countries – and by the time ISO 37120 was published in 2014, I knew that it indeed would be a transformative catalyst for cities. With the publication of ISO 37120 – I also launched a Toronto-based not-for-profit called the World Council on City Data (WCCD), which started with a network of Twenty Foundation cities in 2014 (including for example cities across the globe from Dubai, to London, UK, to Toronto, to Los Angeles, to Johannesburg), and this global network has grown to almost 100 cities now across 35 countries as of 2020.

In addition to ISO 37120, the first ISO Standard ever published for city data, we have now started to certify cities in conformity with two new standards published in 2019: ISO 37122 Indicators for Smart Cities and ISO 37123 Indicators for Resilient Cities. This is referred to as the ISO 37120 Series. Throughout the entire process, SCC was with us the whole way. The leadership, counsel and support that SCC CEO Chantal Guay provided – both in our early days and recently – was essential in making this “Made in Canada” data solution for cities as pervasive and impactive as it has become. Without Chantal and the entire team at SCC – the WCCD would not be where it is today.

Q.

What role do standards, such as ISO 37120, have in securing a sustainable future for everyday Canadians?

A.

The ISO 37120 series of standards – that is ISO 37120, 37122 & 37123 – are changing the way that cities can look at the concepts of the sustainable, smart and resilient city. For too long, those terms lacked any quantifiable, standardized, global definition, which resulted in an inability for cities to make genuine progress on these critical agendas. Through the WCCD’s Certification Process and soon-to-be-re-launched Visualisation Portal, we are working to demystify data and make it more accessible while enabling cities to set their internal baselines and benchmarking internally and externally with other cities across the world. Lessons that can travel from city to city are often the best solutions, as few urban problems exist in isolation.

Q.

As a Canadian influencer in the standards world, what are you most proud of?

A.

Quite simply, contributing to creating a set of standards that transform how city leaders embrace standardized data to drive improvements for their city’s residents. Every day I see the innovative way that cities in Canada and globally are leveraging these indicators. When you know that you are making a difference for countless urban citizens, it’s something that propels you forward. As a person dedicated to building sound and transparent urban governance, this ISO work I am committed to, helps to propel cities forward in more intelligent and fair governing, planning and management processes that helps to ensure better futures on the ground in cities.

Q.

How does ISO/TC 268 advance the development of gender-responsive standards?

A.

Gender responsiveness is an important component in our standards work, in helping cities become smarter, more sustainable, and more resilient, but even more specifically, to help drive a more inclusive culture in cities.

Within ISO 37120, several indicators look at issues like female student enrollment (within the education theme), or the percentage of women elected to city-level office (within the governance theme), or even the number of violent crimes against women per 100,000 population (within the safety theme). ISO 37120 is being adopted in countries and is being implemented in cities across the world, in fact currently in about 100 cities in over 30 countries around the world. These indicators help cities consider the unique or varied challenges, and opportunities presented to women in very different cities throughout the world. As a result, this data being generated through the ISO 37120 series, helps to start a conversation on the unique challenges and opportunities that women face locally in their work, social experiences and daily lives in cities. More importantly, this globally standardized data helps to open the conversation and information exchange in cities across the world.

Q.

What role do you think the SCC will have in the standards world 50 years from now?

A.

SCC has always been such an outsized contributor to the standards world due to its innovative approach to standards design, and support towards their implementation. Its reputation globally is second to none, and I do not doubt that SCC’s role will become even more important over the next decades as it continues to highlight Canadian innovation and propel this innovative work on the global stage. As Canada leads on global agendas such as climate change, the Sustainable Development Goals, business development and innovation, and most currently on safety and resilience – so also will SCC lead through their role in supporting ground breaking standards development that ensure these global agendas are served through critical standardization work, led by Canadians.

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