A rapt audience listened to four-minute-and-sixteen-second speeches on Thursday night about the possible future of Toronto.
Short and sweet was the order of the evening as #voteTO held its inaugural event last night, #voteTOin416 at Annex Live. With municipal elections looming ahead, fourteen speakers were given a curt four minutes and sixteen seconds to present their ideas for ways to improve Toronto.
The evening was organized by #voteTO, a group of fifteen individuals who came together through Twitter with the goal of addressing a range of issues that are often ignored in the traditional electoral process. “An election presents opportunities for new ideas, but the focus on the electoral system places an emphasis on personalities rather than issues,” #voteTO coordinator Jen Hassum said about the organization. “We all started talking about what could be done to reshape the dialogue around municipal politics, and how we could make it fun and engaging.”
Speaker Mark Kuznicki weighed in on the importance of community interaction.
The group found the answer in organizing Thursday’s event, which borrowed Ignite Toronto’s format of short speeches combined with PowerPoint slides that automatically advance every few seconds, forcing presenters to summarize their ideas concisely. Presenter Jamie Kirkpatrick, who addressed the importance of having candidates endorse environmental goals, described his four-minute spiel as an “elevator pitch.” Despite the pressure, he fully endorsed the short format: “The only way that these issues will seem exciting to people is if they are presented in a snappy way.”
Other speakers shared the sentiment. “Some people think that planning and zoning rules are only for geeks,” said Michael Shapcott, who spoke about the need for affordable housing for a healthy city. “But this is something people should be getting excited about, so that everyone in Toronto has a good home.”
With topics that ran the gamut from the necessity of cat-neutering to the city’s bedbug epidemic, the presenters presented a diversity of issues. Mark Kuznicki, who finished off the night by discussing the significance of community-based social events, revealed that he was happy to hear new perspectives on urban life. “It’s good to listen to people speak who aren’t candidates,” he said. “I especially think candidates should listen to people who aren’t candidates.”
The growing presence of media and community online was integral to the creation of #voteTO. “The institutions, like traditional forms of media, that have shaped dialogue around municipal elections in the past don’t have the same relevance for this generation,” asserted Hassum. The organization’s website even reads: “Our community is online; Twitter is our constituency.” But for a group that began online, #voteTO was able to deliver an actual physical crowd, making the event a sold-out success. The Annex Live restaurant was standing-room only, and presentations were followed with cheers and applause. “We are trying to have social media have a real life political presence,” Hassum said. Fellow member of the #voteTO collective Justin Stayshyn reiterated the sentiment: “Online, you can build momentum, and that’s important for any group or issue. But then that energy has to manifest physically. We have to come together IRL—in the real world.”
The mood in the room seemed very encouraging and jubilant, if a bit insular. (As is often—and unfortunately—the case with these kinds of events, many in attendance seemed to know each other: it’s hard to know how many people became involved that weren’t engaged in these kinds of civic endeavours already.) That said, the packed house on Thursday was ample evidence that a significant number of people were enthusiastic enough to show up in the flesh, including mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson. While a few presentations were too complex to be fully explained within the four-minute limit, and others veered off the topic of the city, the evening retained a sense of buoyant optimism. “This is about ideas,” maintained Hassum. “It’s about creating a vision for a better Toronto.”
Photos by Andrew Louis/Torontoist.