NextCITY: Transforming Planning

In June 2012, I began consulting on brand strategy to create an identity for an innovative project at The City of Calgary. But it was a project that didn't resemble anything that I'd worked on before. It wasn't a campaign, a company or organization. And it didn't have much in the way of communications parameters or criteria. It was a straight-up directive from Calgary's Mayor and City Council to transform how Calgary plans and builds itself. 

It was clear that the project wasn't going to just create another committee, report or incremental fix: this had been tried before, many times, mostly without success. Planners, developers, citizens and communities were often unhappy with the current planning system, and that the current way of doing business was limiting opportunity and innovation in the city. The City of Calgary was also failing to fully implement its own long-term plan to ensure the city's prosperity and sustainability in the future. Transforming Planning would have to take bold, sometimes radical, moves.

So, working with a designer and The City's Creative Lead, we started at the beginning with a concept and a story. I proposed that the new brand should take a vision-based strategy to evoke Calgary's future potential, while attempting to cultivate trust of stakeholders. We had to quickly establish that our city's common ground lies the future, not the shortcomings of the present day. We needed our diverse (and often skeptical) audience to understand that a new approach was at hand, one that sought to be genuinely collaborative. It had to be a statement.

My first concept for the project's identity was actually something called nextCITY. It was presented to leadership at Planning, Development & Assessment (PDA) and was enthusiastically adopted, not for my project but as the innovation brand for the entire City department. So a second, complementing brand had to be developed for the initiative, one that eventually became Transforming Planning. 

By September 2012, I joined Transforming Planning as communications lead to develop strategy and tactics on a full-time basis. I was also named to the Transforming Planning Working Group, a multi-stakeholder leadership team that shapes strategic direction for the initiative. 

Since then, the project has grown in scale and reputation. Now of the most ambitious civic initiatives of its kind in North America, Transforming Planning encompasses a broad audience and multiple channels of communication, including web, social media, local & national media relations, as well as extensive stakeholder engagement.

It's been a great strategy, even when things get spicy: Transforming Planning seeks to leverage the power of groups as part of a large-scale, collaborative design process to deliver a new planning system for Calgary. Check out our new mini-website, the first of its kind at The City, for more information. / @nextCITYyyc


Cowtown Comes of Age: The Globe & Mail

If you really want to understand a place, look at how it celebrates itself. Here's a feature I wrote for Canada's national newspaper on the centennial of the Calgary Stampede, an annual rodeo, midway and cowboy festival that attracts as many visitors as Mardi Gras. It's a story about Calgary and what makes this place so successful, influential and different than most other cities. I grew up here, and some my ancestors negotiated Alberta's major Indian treaties in the late 1800s (which, among other things, cleared the way for Calgary) and other ancestors homesteaded and farmed in different parts of Alberta in the early 1900s. I've learned much yet this place still fascinates me. As I write in the story, Calgary and its annual cowboy festival are "a hybrid – a collision of rural and urban, local and global, past and present."

"Calgary is often stigmatized as having been a very young city for a very long time: a city unable to grow up, fixating on its imaginary cowboy past while tearing down historic landmarks, blowing up inner-city hospitals and hedging its future on non-renewable resources.

But that’s only partly true, because Calgary is also a city that’s long been coming of age – a complex, urban, power centre with an annual carnival whose estimated attendance exceeds both New Orleans’s Mardi Gras and Nevada’s desert gathering Burning Man."

As I write in the feature, perhaps best and perhaps most telling Stampede event is the annual Ismaili breakfast (hundreds of free pancake breakfasts can be found across the city during the Stampede). 

"Out-of-towners might be surprised to learn that one of the best and largest Stampede breakfasts is hosted by the Ismaili community in the parking lot of their Calgary temple – over 5,000 people eating pancakes with east African bharazi (curried pigeon peas), while touring the temple and admiring the fanciful Ismaili parade float. Last year, Mayor Naheed Nenshi officially launched the event from atop the float, just before a posse of black-hatted cowboys offered free line-dancing lessons.

No one bothers calling it multiculturalism any more. Just as they don’t boast about the fact that newer Canadians attend the Stampede at a higher rate than the rest of the population, with 29 per cent of Stampede midway-goers identifying themselves as visible minorities – like their mayor, who also knows his way around a horse."


Price of a Bargain published in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong & Korea

Years ago, I studied Mandarin in China and Taiwan and subsequently returned as a journalist, partially to research The Price of a Bargain. So I'm happy this book has been on the other side of the Pacific Rim, after originally being published in Canada and the United States in 2009. Here is the cover art for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong & Korea, respectively:

mainland ChinaTaiwan / Hong Kong editionKorean edition


Work-in-progress: Bio-therapies & the Future of Medicine

Occasionally, I write books. My current project began as an investigation into stem cell research, but has expanded to all emerging biological therapies -- including immunotherapy, oncolytic viruses, genomics -- as well as policy and society considerations in medical tourism, drug research and commercialization, ethics, and health policy.

Tentatively entitled The Universe Inside, this book is an up-close look at this historic movement in science and medicine. Why medsci? My books are an ongoing (sometimes accidental) study of disruptive change and the impact of innovation, both positive and negative. More directly, I am active in the medical world as a board member at Canada's first preschool for immune-compromised children facing cancer, solid organ transplant, bone marrow transplant, and blood disorder. Having already written about various kinds of change in our physical world -- climactic, economic, cultural -- it's exciting and compelling to investigate the inner world of the human organism, where existing medical options and scientific knowledge are always framed by greater questions and mysteries.

This is how the story goes:

At first, it seemed like an impossible goal. Since the early 1900s, medical researchers and clinicians have experimented with chemotherapy as a treatment for cancer. And for much of the 20th century, survival rates were negligible, and a diagnosis of cancer usually meant inevitable death, something that affected at least one in five people, as it still does today. Treatments with mustard gas derivatives and arsenic sometimes gave reprieve to early cancer patients, and newer drugs targeting fast-growing cells increasingly achieved temporary cures without severe toxic effects. Yet it wouldn’t be until the 1960s that patients could actually hope to be cured of common blood cancers like leukemia, where childhood treatments now approach 80 per cent success. Overall, survival rates improved incrementally for many cancers and blood disorders as patients often lived many more months or years in remission. Yet amazingly, early drugs like methotrexate and vincristine remain the cornerstone of many cancer treatments. While targeted therapies and combination drugs have improved cancer outcomes, the basic fact is that basic treatment modalities have not changed for decades. And with the exception of childhood leukemia, many cancers remain hard to treat and cure within exisiting treatment paradigms, leading some patients, researchers and clinicians to question the efficacy of cytotoxic (cell-killing) chemotherapy as the standard response to much of the developed world's critical illness.  

Yet at the same time that medicine was exploring chemotherapy in the 1950s, another paradigm emerged. Researchers discovered that fatal doses of radiation could eliminate certain kinds of disease and, more importantly, the patient could be at least temporarily saved by infusing their body with hematopoietic (blood) stem cells derived from bone marrow. A new person could be engineered, in essence, by grafting a healthy immune system into a diseased body. And despite many early failures, stem cell transplant eventually began to result in a small but growing number of durable cures for relapsed and other hard-to-treat cancers. 

Truth is, if humans are ever saved by a cloned heart, kidney or lung, or have their immune system retrained to fight cancer, it will because of stem cell research and stem cell transplantation that began in the 1940s and 1950s. Transplant pioneers like Donnall Thomas or stem cell researchers McCulloch and Till helped to discover a new frontier, the realization that human tissue or other biological materials could themselves become the durable cure for otherwise incurable disease. 

In scientific and medical terms, it is a potentially huge paradigm shift. For example: if chemotherapy for cancer is cure by poison – chemical war on unwanted, uncontrolled cells that emerged from the 1950s – then stem cell transplant (via bone marrow or cord blood) is cure by transformation, grafting DNA onto DNA, a high-impact treatment for hard-to-treat cancers that gained broader clinical acceptance in the 1970s. “The metamorphosis [of transplant] is not yet fifty years old,” writes medical historian Julie M. Fenster. “It is possible that people still don’t fully understand what transplantation means, not even those who have worked within the field for decades.” 

Consequently, today's world of biological medicine reads a lot like science fiction. On numerous fronts, we are moving to adopt the unique power of the human body, viruses, engineered tissue to multiply, differentiate, illuminate, and, potentially, regenerate. Stem cells, the immune system and non-traditional mediums play a significant role in much of today's leading research: already, we can create blood from skin cells, and culture 3-D lung tissue, kill leukemia (MLL) cancer stem cellsdestroy human cancers with viruses, and even model mammal cells after salamander genes to encourage regeneration of lost and damaged limbs. Since the 1990s, cell-based or biological therapies have been investigated as novel treatments for heart disease, cancer, auto-immune diseases, multiple sclerosis, autism, diabetes, spinal and brain injury (including stroke), regeneration of injured organs, rheumatoid arthritis, deafness, blindness – even baldness. "What differentiates this new generation of therapeutics is that investigators are no longer simply processing cells or tissues, but rather designing, engineering and manufacturing cell-based products," writes Toronto biomedical engineer Peter Zandstra

Biological therapies are potentially quite different than what you might find at your local hospital. Stem cells, for example, have been hypothesized as the master source, or cellular engine, of all complex life forms on earth. To the degree that we actually understand them, stem cells can transform into nearly any kind of tissue (depending on stem cell type), modulate immune response, hormones, and inflammation, as well as be replicated on a large scale, either for human therapy or study of biology and disease. They are present in the embryo onward, and through various mechanisms, help create tissue for every aspect of our body, and repair and renew organ systems essential to continued life. Stem cells are also thought to play a leading role in cancer, and play a critical role in our understanding of disease in general, and the ongoing mapping of the human genome. In other words, employing stem cells, viruses or even the patient's native immune system is an approach to treatment of disease quite unlike nearly any drug or medical intervention ever devised by humans. 

There is much that we still don't understand about using tissues and cells to cure people; and frequently high rates of mortality within existing transplant medicine reflect this experimental aspect. While most of the risks of established transplant medicine are well-documented, newer bio-therapies pose unique and potentially serious side effects, such as tumorous growths resulting from stem cell injections (documented in patients treated in offshore clinics in Russia and Thailand). Artificially induced stem cells, pluripotent cells developed without human embryos, offer new ways to customize and manufacture cells, but also create new challenges, since severely reprogrammed cells do not always behave as intended. “The worry is that reprogramming might shove cells so far from what is physiologically normal that they become pathological,” reported Nature in April 2009. Perhaps one of the greatest threats is that of public expectation: since the 1970s, patients have been promised victory in the war on cancer, yet with many common cancers we remain decades away from significant, lasting cures. 

From yesterday's pioneering stem cell transplant doctors to tomorrow's human organs cultivated in bio-reactors, cell-based and transplant medicine is a bridge, an experimental mode of treatment that links past, present and future. My work is at one level a genealogy of transplant as the next major (biological) movement in medicine: exploring early efforts in stem cell transplant and linking this early work and the complexities and promise of current treatment to future-looking efforts to translate cell-based therapies into durable cures. Through profiles, documentary and investigative reporting, this project will explore the complexities and possibilities of the human immune system, the strengths and weaknesses of existing medical treatments and drug options, the mysteries of life at the cellular level, and, despite everything, the irrepressible aspect of hope that is part of every medical experience. In other words, the book is a personal yet big picture attempt to explore the current trajectory of science and medicine, as it pertains to some our most serious diseases.

Today's research points to the strong likelihood of biological treatments playing a significant role in the future of medicine. Yet lack of public awareness and current public policy suggest that we may not be ready for miracle cures, even if they arrived tomorrow. One thing is certain: the history, current reality, and future of our own cells are not well enough understood. 

Keep posted in the coming months for new work on this topic. 


Now in Paperback!

It's hard not to sound like a Wal-Mart advertisement, but here it is: better, cheaper, and possibly more absorbent, it's the paperback edition of my 2009 book, The Price of a Bargain

I've overhauled and updated the introduction, plus a few other things. In some ways, the book's arguments actually seem more current now than a year ago, particularly when it comes to America's decline, the not-unrelated rise of China, and the complex interactions of a world that still defines itself through affordable consumerism.

The book is a work of reporting and analysis, not a polemic against big box stores; Wal-Mart and globalization are just pieces of the puzzle. As I write in the book's introduction, the recession that began in 2008 was no mere financial collapse "but the beginning of a major shift in society, economy and environment. ...Our whole system of cheap is leveraged in ways we are only just beginning to understand – and broken in ways that may not be easily fixed." 

You can read excerpts here and here to get the gist. Or you can read the reviews, which were generally quite positive. 

It was originally published in the midst of a year-long family health crisis, so I didn't really get much of a chance to promote it. So if you bought the hardcover edition, or helped spread the word, then thanks!

Get it here in Canada, or in the United States, or as an e-book

Download FREE chapter, revised and improved: "Introduction 2010 - Black Friday"

UPDATE December 2010: Chinese language rights have just been sold to Shanghai Xiron, adding mainland China to the list of international editions in Taiwan, Korea, and Hong Kong that will be published in 2011 and 2012. Thanks to all!