Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

2011 Sustainability Congress: one step closer to regional change

Okay, so I learned a lot more than what dematerialization is — and it’s not when someone on Star Trek vaporizes, then reappears in regular form. It is the process of directing more activities “to achieve an improved quality of life that is not based on increased consumption of materials, will allow continued economic growth, and help redress the imbalance in resource consumption between industrialized and industrially less developed countries” (Metro Vancouver definition).

When I first heard about the 2011 Sustainability Congress hosted by Metro Vancouver, BC, I was skeptical. The five featured male panelists were all what I’d call power brokers in mainstream business; I hardly expected them to come up with grassroots solutions that weren’t blinkered by privilege and prosperity. They were David Berge, Vancity’s senior vp of community investment; Tun Chan, director of The Vancouver Foundation; Stephen Owen, vp of external, legal and community relations at UBC; Robin Silvester, president and CEO of Port Metro Vancouver; and Bing Thom of Bing Thom Architects.

Yet, as one of 600 registrants who attended this free event, held June 25 in downtown Vancouver, I came away feeling contentedly surprised. Each speaker revealed far more insights and sensitivity to the needs of the Metro Vancouver region than I had expected. With a focus on three pillars — environment, economy, and society — the first part of the event highlighted these issues:

  • the value of First Nations culture and our need for connectedness and a revitalized sense of community;
  • competing pressures on land; the impact of population; the limitations of the landscape (mountains, waterways, and a delta) that define the area
  • our region’s vulnerability in the event of a widespread catastrophe such as a pandemic
  • a desire to return to small, community-responsive businesses on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and elsewhere
  • a need for more cross-cultural sharing of all ages in media, neighbourhoods, and religious practices, beyond token events like an annual Multiculturalism Day. One solution: Build up regional town centres and make them cultural hubs.
  • Over the next five years, women will be the biggest growth economy, double the combined growth of China and India (!)
  • Sustainability takes strategic thinking; leadership; collaboration and dialogue; a change in thinking at the individual level; and participation. Tung said: “Knowledge is nothing unless you put it into action.” (Rather than sustainability, Owen preferred the terms “resilience” and “mitigation.”)


“Sustainability was far more than just a buzz word to these executives”


The panel of “community leaders,” moderated by Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, began the Saturday event, which ran from 9 to 2:30 p.m. As a whole, the tone of their talk was warm and spirited, yet pointed, with an obvious “Let’s get to it” refrain. These weren’t guys who just ramble along, spouting rhetoric. They’re results-oriented, solutions-based thinkers who function in a context of success (literally, in Chan’s case — he’s former CEO of S.U.C.C.E.S.S.). It was clear that sustainability was far more than just a buzz word to these executives; they were familiar with top thinkers and contemporary authors in the field.

I enjoyed Thom’s comments the best. He was the most outspoken, considering it lunacy to have built Richmond on land so vulnerable to outside forces, from earthquakes to sea-level rise. He noted that it will cost billions to replace the dykes in Richmond as a result, and he called the decision to run the Canada Line to Richmond “insane.” Instead, “We needed it to Coquitlam.” He stressed the need for a clear head when making such large, regional-use decisions: “We need to think strategically.”

As someone immersed in the arts who makes creativity my lifeblood, I loved these remarks by Thom: “Don’t underestimate the power of culture and the arts. The human heart is only twelve inches away [from our head] but it’s the hardest to reach.”

Johnny Carline, Metro Vancouver’s commissioner and chief administrative officer, said that he heard less on energy from the speakers than he had expected, and I agree. I heard very little mention of transportation issues and alternative energy, other than Owen who mentioned that UBC is looking at bio-energy for its heating system. (I was surprised to hear Owen citing Guy Dauncey, a popular author on climate change solutions, and president of the B.C. Sustainable Energy Association. That pleased me.) Within the “society” pillar, I heard nothing about the homeless and creating affordable housing. Similarly, Metro Vancouver’s initiative to use incineration for waste disposal makes a mockery of clean-air concerns and worries about greenhouse gas emissions. 


We were meant to answer: Where do we need to focus time and resources?

Who should lead the charge?


Following the panel event, attendees broke into groups in separate rooms, to discuss responses and possible solutions, and ultimately, to vote on five priority areas defined by Metro Vancouver: food; climate change; energy; security; and dematerialization. (Before the Congress, we had received by email the worksheet Future of the Region: Building a Shared Roadmap.) For each of the five topics, we were meant to answer: Where do we need to focus time and resources? Who should lead the charge?

At my table, our group of nine was a great mix of thinkers and experience, ranging from a PhD student at UBC focusing on food security issues, and a woman from Society Promoting Environmental Conservation to a businessman who does propane conversions on vehicles. A Metro Vancouver employee served as our informal moderator and kept us on task. We shared respectful, open-minded, and passionate talk, discussing whether a certain area would be best handled by Metro Vancouver, local groups, or at the national and international level.

(I found it intriguing that some of the opinions voiced around security issues in post-Canucks-riot Vancouver echoed the same ones I heard that week at a community meeting in rural Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast: We don’t need a bigger police presence. People at the community level need to be more watchful of each other.)

After a working lunch and our separate discussions, we reconvened upstairs as a plenary, where we each received a small, portable voting machine to vote electronically. The results were immediately tabulated and displayed on large screens before us, dividing us into our professional groups, ranging from business and government to “other” like me. The majority thought that Metro Vancouver was the best level to address all of the areas, except for security. (Click here to see the results breakdown.)

I applaud Metro Vancouver for seeking public feedback on these important issues and hosting such a well organized, multi-media event. We didn’t revolutionize change in the region or the world in a day, but we did create strong footing and inspiration for future action.

To make sustainability a reality, we need to create connections across, and beyond, many otherwise political, social, and cultural barriers. When it comes to saving our future and our planet, we need a broad vision that requires building new relationships with an open mind. This Congress helped to forge that path.

The Congress was live streamed and a video of the proceedings is available on the Metro Vancouver website. The event will be broadcast on Shaw TV on July 10 at 9pm, repeating at July 16 at 4pm, July 17at 3pm and  July 23 at 9am

(For anyone who thinks that technology hasn’t taken over communication, consider this: When Congress moderator Johnny Carline asked who, in the gathering of hundreds, did not own a cell phone, only about 10 people put up their hand.)

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July 5, 2011 at 12:56 pm Comments (0)