NYT: From Canada, Lessons on Revolution

For the record. Cool to see Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi in New York Times. Have a read.

From Canada, Lessons on Revolution
By CHRYSTIA FREELAND | REUTERS
CALGARY, ALBERTA — Conventional wisdom has it that the Internet is dumbing us down and making politics more partisan. Sound bites are more effective than substance. The punditocracy that shapes these truisms is, needless to say, pretty certain they apply most powerfully to people in the provinces, especially those with a history of voting for the right.

That is why the election of Naheed Nenshi, a 39-year-old former business school professor, as mayor of Calgary, is a watershed event that should be of interest far beyond Canada, where he has already become a political superstar.

When Mr. Nenshi earned his upset victory last October, the first flutter of outside enthusiasm was around the fact that an Ismaili Muslim son of South Asian immigrants who came to Canada from Tanzania had been chosen to lead the capital of Canada’s conservative heartland.

The next wave of excitement was inspired by his campaign’s sophisticated use of social media to overturn Calgary’s old-boy political establishment.

The Twitter revolutions, which we are now so familiar with thanks to the oil states of North Africa, had first hit the land of the blue-eyed sheiks thanks to clever tactics like a comic YouTube video of people struggling with the mayor’s name, or providing simple online tools for supporters to color their Facebook pages Nenshi purple.

But when I spoke to Mr. Nenshi a few days ago in the elegant 1911 sandstone building that houses the mayor’s office, he told me that outsiders were missing the point. The real significance of his victory, he said, was to prove that voters care deeply about big ideas and will elect the leaders who take the trouble to engage them. This is true, Mr. Nenshi insisted, even outside political and media centers like New York, London or Toronto.

“We called it politics in full sentences,” said Mr. Nenshi. He has curly, slightly greying hair, and wears rectangular black glasses and a slightly rumpled black suit. He talks not just in full sentences but in full paragraphs, and has the energy and gregariousness of a born politician. “We called it the Better Ideas campaign.”

Those ideas were genuinely serious — and strongly against the current of what many had assumed to be the cultural propensities of Calgarians. Mr. Nenshi is an evangelist of high-density living and of public transit — at least one member of his team doesn’t even own a car.

These are revolutionary notions in Calgary, a city that is spread across as many acres as New York, but houses just a tenth as many people. Calgarians love their cars — that’s how more than two-thirds of them get to work — and they are bullish on the oil industry that not only puts gas in their tanks but also is the lifeblood of their economy.

Yet these same Calgarians embraced a geeky, Harvard-educated former McKinsey consultant, who keeps magazines like IFR and The Banker in his foyer and loves technocratic solutions to urban problems like “spot intensification” and containing sprawl by charging developers more to build on the outskirts of town.

Voters did so, Mr. Nenshi believes, “because we didn’t condescend to people.” Calgary, he told me, “is a city of ideas,” proudly citing as evidence the sell-out crowd of 1,700 the author Malcolm Gladwell drew on a recent visit. (He has been topped only by the singer Sarah McLachlan.)

“Calgarians were really interested in having a conversation about the future of their city,” the mayor told me. But the province of Alberta is the closest Canada comes to a one-party state — “governments never change here” — and until Mr. Nenshi and his pals came along, no one had really bothered to bring people in to that discussion.

This engagement with the community is the second important lesson of Mr. Nenshi’s win. Robert Putnam told us in 1995 that Americans had started to bowl alone. And many of us worry that the advances in technology in the subsequent 15 years have served mostly to alienate us further from our real-life neighbors as we retreat ever deeper into virtual communities of the like-minded.

But what Mr. Nenshi found in Calgary was a passionate desire to be involved in the real, physical life of the city — and one which could be most effectively tapped by using cybertools. What Mr. Nenshi did, he told me — and remember the guy is a former business school professor — was to adapt the classic marketing and political adage that you have to “go to people where they live” to the Internet age.

“One of the things we discussed is that a lot of people live online,” Mr. Nenshi said, including the 600,000 Calgarians, in a city of 1.3 million, who are on Facebook. “Social media was the tool that enabled our philosophy.”

When he first moved back home to Calgary after professional stints in Toronto and New York, Mr. Nenshi said, his East Coast friends were baffled: “The New York people and the Harvard people were like ‘Naheed, why are you in the middle of the Canadian prairies?”’

But he thinks the “Four Seasons hotel tribe” of globe-trotting superelites may be missing the fact that they inhabit a world that is rather provincial itself.

“When I lived in Toronto and New York — big, big cities — how come I saw the same people all the time?” Mr. Nenshi asked. “This so-called borderless world has become more insular. The number of times I hear from people — ‘Oh, I ran into so and so on the flight from J.F.K. to Dubai.’

“I am very happy to let the Four Seasons tribe do their work on global prosperity,” Mr. Nenshi said. “I’ll do my work on local prosperity.”

Chrystia Freeland is global editor at large at Reuters.”

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