Why students? Why now?

Bolder, faster, together poses the question: How can we all take responsibility for the past, navigate a turbulent present and co-operate to protect future generations? Follow along as this series, co-ordinated by the Transition Innovation Group at Community Foundations of Canadaexplores the deep societal transformation already underway and accelerating in Canada and around the world.

When we reflect on the question this series aims to address, we think about the 2.1 million post-secondary students in Canada sitting in classes, worried about the planet, their careers and their mounting debt. At the same time, we think about how cities around the world will be spending trillions of dollars in the next decades responding to the demands of multiple existing and emerging crises, such as climate, housing, energy, systemic inequities, racism and public health.

Although cities are setting ambitious targets to meet these challenges, few are on track. In a world where cities have a growing list of challenges, and post-secondary institutions have expertise to contribute to every aspect of city-building, a formal and comprehensive partnership between them can drive the innovation and solutions needed for a society and planet in transition .

Yet, finding any municipality working closely with its post-secondaries in the everyday business of city-building is rare. In our decade of work in this field at CityStudio, we have seen many examples of projects and research collaborations between cities and schools; but as a model of permanent social infrastructure, it’s not common. Existing collaborations tend to be time-, purpose- or funding-limited. They typically end when the funding ends, when staff department or when leadership changes.

It’s equally remarkable that Canada is now the most educated country in the world, with more than 56 per cent of our population having a post-secondary education. This is an extraordinary feat, but despite our success at education, we rank at the bottom of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries when it comes to environmental progress across 29 indicators. This alarming state begs the question: How can our education system best prepare students for the intersecting environmental and social crises they will face?

Many schools are adapting curricula, training and graduation requirements to address this serious challenge, but we wonder what it will take for our higher education sector to fully seize this opportunity. Is it possible to engage students in civic participation where they live and learn?

It’s an interesting challenge, especially with the widespread disconnect between youth and civic engagement in Canada. Although many students could research and write elegant essays on democratic reform in Ukraine, very few have ever been to a city hall and barely half of our 18- to 24-year-old citizens vote.

This is largely because students are not taught how to register and vote, and are unprepared for the process. In a non-virtuous cycle, they’re disengaged, feeling that politicians don’t care what they think and that voting won’t make a difference.

Youth engagement becomes a significant opportunity for political leaders because, as Future Majority has shown, youth is the largest voting block in Canada consistently ignored by politicians. More than any other group, they’re poised to influence electoral platforms in crucial swing ridings across Canada. Post-secondaries are uniquely positioned to increase accessibility to civic education and youth participation.

Our Canadian charity, CityStudio, is one of many initiatives around the world supporting cities by mobilizing youth. We do this through our mission to build a permanent relationship between municipalities and post-secondaries, giving students the opportunity to work on problems as part of course work and for credit, co-creating solutions with city staff. This is a new kind of social infrastructure that brings innovation and capacity to cities, while also helping post-secondaries prepare and engage our young citizens to contribute to a healthier planet and an equitable, resilient society.

Imagine the possibilities when municipalities in Canada collaborate with their post-secondary students on the things that matter most, write Duane Elverum @CityStudioVAN & Alix Linaker @CityStudio. #ClimateSolutions #ClimateCrisis #VanClimateAction

Organizations such as Recode, Enactusthe School for CitiesHamilton’s CityLab and the MetroLab Network are all doing important work, but collectively, the total number of students, faculty and researchers involved on any campus, in any city, is very small.

A national effort is needed to enable permanent collaboration between cities and schools. At CityStudio, we’ve identified the four most important ingredients for ongoing, effective collaboration between local government and post-secondaries:

  • Problemdistribution. City priorities need to be gathered, translated and distributed to all levels of post-secondary expertise.
  • equal access. A high-level partnership sends a signal to all city staff that the post-secondary sector is a potential collaborator across all city departments.
  • project management. Projects need to be facilitated and administered by trained co-ordinators who scope and create projects for mutual benefit.
  • Useful deliverables. Project outcomes need to demonstrate concrete value to city staff, cities and communities.

CityStudio projects not only provide high value to cities, but also benefit stakeholders simultaneously:

  1. City staff receive increased capacity and expertise to help solve problems;
  2. Academic institutions fulfill community engagement aims at scale;
  3. Students develop career skills and professional networks; and
  4. Citizens see improvement in their city and neighbourhoods.

The collective impact adds up quickly. Over the past 10 years, CityStudio’s growing 15-city network has mobilized 11,000 students who have contributed over 240,000 student hours of class time to local civic needs. The projects are meaningful, addressing the interlocking challenges of our time — climate, racism, Indigenous reconciliation, economic well-being, pandemic recovery, and more. The International Climate Engagement Network recently recognized the CityStudio model as an important place-based innovation to help governments achieve their climate engagement strategies. The charity has also been recognized as one of Canada’s top 100 COVID recovery projects by the Future of Good. Sweden’s Tendensor also cites CityStudio as a mechanism for urban talent retention.

The next decade may be the most pivotal of our lives. It’s disheartening when our political leaders seem to regard high gas prices as of more urgency than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “high confidence” warning that “climate impacts and risks are becoming increasingly complex and more difficult to manage … resulting in compounding risks cascading across sectors.”

This cascade has already shown it has the power to deepen fractures in our society, grossly exaggerating existing inequity, increasing polarization and destabilizing our fragile democracy. We need everyone working towards a just transition, including students.

We know that students can do far more than we ask them to do in the classroom, but we ask them to wait until graduation before they can start contributing, or otherwise ask them to do this work on evenings and weekends. Yet, many post-secondaries have stated they prioritize city-campus collaboration, and every city is working overtime on a growing list of problems.

The stage is set for the generational mission that we have been waiting for. Imagine the possibilities when cities, towns and regions across Canada are collaborating with their post-secondaries on the things that matter most — things that will help us better navigate a turbulent present and collaborate to protect future generations.

CityStudio was founded in 2011 to provide students with direct opportunities to work in and with cities on urban challenges. CityStudio membership includes partnership administration, training and ongoing project and knowledge exchange between member cities and their post-secondaries. Read our annual report and impact report.

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