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Goodbye to the MPI: so long and thanks for all the fish

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Roger L. Martin, Richard Florida

IG: Hello, and welcome to Shiftdisturbers, the MPI podcast where we highlight the people, research, and ideas that change the way we think about the world. I’m your host Ian Gormely, writer and producer of Shiftdisturbers for the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

If you haven’t already heard the Martin Prosperity Institute will be closing its doors at the end of June. Over a decade ago we set out to make a difference in the world through our explorations of city building and geographical advantage, and in our investigation into the underpinnings and fault lines of democratic capitalism. For details on the latter I highly recommend taking a listen to our previous episode that lays out some of the solutions for the ills facing democratic capitalism that we’ve come up with.

But for our final episode we wanted to take stock of all the work and research that’s come out of the institute over the past 11 years. Here MPI staff members, past and present, lay out highlights from their time working together, and offer what they believe with hopefully be the institute’s lasting legacy. To kick us off I see no better place to start than with our executive director Jameson Steeve.

JS: Joe Rotman met with me when I was working in government. And he said that while he appreciated my public service as an Ontarian it was time for me to move on. And I didn’t even think I had realized that at that point. I’d been at Queen’s Park for almost nine years. And he was right. And I was really intrigued at this place because, one, it seemed to be a mix of sort of business thinking with public policy in an academic environment which was attractive. Number two, Roger and Rich, from a public intellectual perspective, they are top notch. They’re also just good people and fun to work with.

And so, this was, as a guy who worked in politics for years this was all the best parts of politics without the politics. It was public policy; it was trying to make a difference. The platform seemed to be a little underutilized. The MPI had been around, I guess at that point for, I guess about five years and had been doing good work, particularly in the city side, but hadn’t grown to what Joe Rotman had wanted it to be which was a public policy think tank. And it is a school; so with a non-partisan lenses but with that as a particular goal of having impact, and with a bit more of a business focus. And so, that was also a weakness of mine, I thought, that my reputation in the public policy world was on the social side; education, full day kindergarten, greenbelt, were things that I had…and healthcare, were things that I’ve had a chance to influence. Not as much on the economic side. And so, this was a chance to round out my knowledge base. 

We have explicitly gone out to get two things out of people. One was eclectic. So we’ve had music journalists, we’ve had future Strumbellas, GIS people, writers, economists, public policy background, design specialists, so we explicitly wanted to hire people with a mix of talents, in the theory that think tanks, the way they approach things hadn’t necessarily gotten the results that they wanted in the past. And so, if you hired different and eclectic skill sets than maybe you can mix them together and come up with a different result, number one.

And number two is people with good sense of humour and an approach to life. When I came here the office was fairly transitory. People were here for part of the year. We had fellows who were never really quite here. Rich is on the road so much, and so we wanted to develop a new office culture when I got here. So I think that’s what I’m proudest of. 

And then, as I say, the third thing I’m proud of is somehow we’re the rebels in this building. Our speaker’s series of this podcast are called Shiftdisturbers, as we’ve joked, the number of meetings I’ve had with people about that name. By the time they finally got to the point where they wanted me to change we’d already been going for about eight months and it was too late. So I think we’re kind of the fun kids in school. And I think we’ve added something to the university, and to the faculty. 

Shiftdisturbers started as, we always joked that it was vapourware. We had some money, we had very great benefactors, but in our first year when Roger came on we were still ramping up and spooling up on what we wanted to talk about. So we didn’t have necessarily any product to put out into the world, but we needed to get it out into the world. So we could use our money in an effective way to go after some speakers that we wouldn’t otherwise get. 

And so, one, we were able to attract speakers whose work we found interesting, and two we got speakers that students wouldn’t get access to otherwise. The Nate Silvers, the people who are on the circuit and speaking out there in the world and weren’t necessarily coming to Canada and we got them here.     

So I think, I was proud of the audience generation for that. I think it brought people to our events, to the school, and made it really interesting. I think the night that we had the Syrian immigration panel was probably the thing I was most proud of, in that we established a relationship with the New York Times, established a relationship with Jody Kantor before she was Jody Kantor of Harvey Weinstein. And the audience was 250 people, mostly young, predominately immigrant and Syrian, which is not a typical audience for a Rotman school event. 

And then, lastly, that I was proud as a Canadian in that the minister of immigration showed up, no prep. We told him that he would be part of a panel discussion, and it literally turned into three journalists from the New York Times, and a fairly hostile crowd asking him direct questions about expanding the Syrian Refugee Program. And he answered the questions. And so, whether you liked his answers or not I was proud to host an event where the public dialogue was unscripted, and open, and he gave honest answers and made me proud as a Canadian, and proud as an institute that we were fulfilling our function. 

And then, lastly the debate, hosting the mayoral debate, the only one that happened here on campus; a fairly nerve-wracking night for me because I had never done a debate before, and the debates between Ford and Tory up until that point hadn’t exactly been cotillion dances. I was a little bit worried about how I was going to handle that, but they were on their best behaviour, and Olivia Chow, and I was proud to host that. So anything that increased the public discourse I think we were most proud of. 

With Roger working on his book, hopefully finishing up the manuscript in the next couple of months, I think that will be the final legacy. But I think we proved that public policy can be approachable and fun. And I hope that’s a legacy that’s left both here in the school and in the emanating spirit for people who have worked here and move on, that there’s an interest in these things. That they see the world in a slightly different way and that spread from there.    

And I’m really interested to see you know…this is a bit of a sad day. The Mowat Institute here at the University of Toronto, the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity, two of which were ours and a third that’s a friend, will all have closed their doors by the end of June. So that was a provincially focused, economic, provincially focused social, and internationally forces. So it will be interesting to see from those ashes what shall rise, right. 

And I think our true legacy will be seen if people step up into that space and say those guys added some value. Maybe we can too. Who could fund it? Who might lead it? I think that could be an interesting question. And then, I think the comraderies and friendships that we have from people who worked here. I think, generally it’s been a fun place to work. We work on interesting things in a beautiful environment and it’s been a blast. It’s been a riot. So I think those will continue on. 

KK: Karen King, senior researcher on Dr. Florida’s cities team. They are looking for the first two post docs for the MPI. And I hadn’t applied because at that point in time I think MPI was quite evolving, and what was on the website and what was known about MPI is very different from my own personal research. So I thought, you know, it’s not a match. Not a match for me. But just before I went to a conference I got an email saying you know we’ve seen your CV. You know I hadn’t applied. We’ve seen your CV; we’d like you to interview. I was like; when you’re on the post doc market you don’t turn down an interview. I said, sure, if you think I could be a match, that’s fine. 

I interviewed with Kevin Stellark, the research director at that time. And we were at a conference. We interviewed, and he was like, ‘great meeting you, etcetera. I’ll let you know.’ But even if you don’t get the position, at that point in time they were having their first junior academic conference so I got invited there. 

And just before the conference I got an email saying, ‘hi, we’d love you to come work for us.’ And of course I said no. I was like, we don’t match. You know I had seen the works, particularly read Richard’s books and I thought, I’m not really much into economic development, occupational industry, and structures of learning. I said this doesn’t seem like a good match. And their work is predominantly based in the U.S. and at that point in time my work was solely only in Canada. And of course my Ph.D. supervisor says, "why would not go to the MPI at the University of Toronto and work with Richard Florida?" But they said, "you know come to Toronto. Come see the office."

So I went in, saw the office, had a good long talk. A couple of weeks after, I said, why not give it a shot? They obviously, knew something and saw something because even though I initially had said no…and that was the summer of 2008…and now it’s 2019 and I’m still there. They find different types of people to work with, they give the chance and you learn just so much. I think it’s very different in terms of the speed and the things that they work on in terms of always working on various reports. But at the same time the smaller projects. You’re working on academic papers, you’re working on book chapters, and you’re working on op-eds.

So I think it’s the pace and the variety of work that’s done. So it’s actually very, I think very different from more of a traditional academic institute, where there is one major report. You put all your efforts into it, the whole team, and that’s’ what you do and you produce one report. And I think the different model here is you have one report but you also have multiple products that come out of it. In particular, in the last couple of years working with Richard I’ve seen all the work also accumulates into his books. So it’s kind of all the little pieces actually had, like a bigger product and I would never have imagined it, when you look at all the different products that go all into one book at the end.

And then, of course I’m working with all the different people that have come through the institute over the years; working on Richard’s book, The New Urban Crisis that was really quite, just quite an experience. Like from start to end I would say it was about a three year process from the first draft being put together and what needed to be done. And then, after that when we thought everything was done the U.K. version so we also did new material for the U.K. version, even though I thought, oh, we finished that after three years. 

Personally, in terms of my own research I would say when I look back what turned out to be the most interesting was the venture capital project, because it was supposed to be one report, and the data was so rich it just kept on spinning off. Like it was, okay let’s have one report, it grew too big. Okay now we’ve spun it off to two, three, and four. I think it ended up to be six at the end, and then an academic article and a couple of book chapters. So that went into The New Urban Crisis.

So I think that was quite interesting because it was something that I hadn’t had any experience with so it was a new area of research for me. Most of the work focuses on the U.S. and sometimes we were able to do a spinoff Canadian counterpart. But one of the projects that we did in later years at MPI was the Global Creativity Index and particularly in Southeast Asia.

So, with that particular report I thought I saw that as an opportunity to take the concept and the ideas that we had really worked on in the U.S. and to a lesser extent Canada. I thought, wow, that would have been really interesting to have continued that work, and looked at these kinds of instances in other countries. We learned and studied so many interesting things for the U.S. but we just didn’t have time or opportunity, or manpower really, to continue on that to different countries in different contexts. I hope the legacy of MPI is just the quality of the research that we put out and, in particular the ones that were related to, in terms of the Canadian context, how it added to the richness of Canadian research.

And I say that because even now to this day, I still get a lot of media inquiries about various little bits of research that we do, you know four, five, six, seven years ago.

The legacy for my MPI is that you’ve shown that great body of work and I think we can re-educate it quite well in terms of a broader audience. So not only do we get the academic audience, but we really reached out to the broader public. It’s been disseminated in such a way that other people can use this research to leap frog to their own research.

So they’ve been kind of taking inspiration or taken ideas. That’s the greatest legacy, is to spread out more research and to continue the research and to do it for other people.

SS: Stephanie Schram, director of intervention design here at the Martin Prosperity Institute. My journey started when I graduated here from the MBA program. And before I came here to MPI, I actually started at Rotman’s business design studio called Rotman Design Works and spent a large portion of my time there teaching, and really designing experiences in education for the master’s program. And all the while was still in contact with Roger. He was interested in that work. And it came to be an opportunity that Roger had along with Jennifer to think about how might we bring design into the work that we do here at the institute?

And so, as with kind of all you know interesting opportunities they came to me to say, hey would you be interested in exploring what design might look like here at the institute, and would that be interesting to you. And my answer always with interesting opportunities that don’t have a defined answer, my answer is always yes.

If there’s one element of the people outside of the work that I really value surrounding myself with people who are just actually way smarter than I am, challenged the way that I think about things, show me areas and ways in which to think that I don’t normally think about. And I just really appreciate the people that are a part of the institute, not only the core team but also all the external conversations that have happened. And that I’m really grateful for.

And I think the actual content and subject of what the institute has explored has also interested me because it again, is outside of what I’ve normally done and focused on. And what I appreciated was being able to bring some of that design perspective into the work. So doing the Persona Project was one of those elements to bring an element of real people that normally other institutes or think tanks don’t spend the time to really say, who is the person or the people or the diversity of people that are going to be affected by big system change policy change around that.

I think MPI’s legacy is going to be one that established new ways of being an institute. And when I think about some of the activities that we did that were extensions of the core work and thinking, such as the speaker series, bringing in diverse perspectives there, but complementary and even challenging our perspectives.

And then, I think the core work of designing for democratic capitalism, the work that core team is doing, I think there’s something there, having been part of some of the recent conversations around that with people that are external to the institute, what has resonated with them in terms of really being able to diagnose what’s wrong with that model, and being able to put that all together in a way that makes sense for people to say, okay this is what’s happening instead of grasping at straws, or just wondering, I know this isn’t working but I’m not sure why.

VS: Valerie Sola, executive assistant to Richard Florida and Jameson Steeve. Since starting at U of T, I found myself at research institutes, starting with bone engineering and stem cells, transitioning over to nursing, and then at the Mowat Centre which is another policy think tank. So I guess it was a natural transition to come to the Martin Prosperity Institute. But the level of research that happened here was really inspirational to me. They were asking the questions that were kind of running through my head as a regular citizen.

So for me, definitely the people; they’re fun, they’re intelligent, they can be intense at times but in a good way. Something that brought a lot of pride for me personally being an administrator, was the moment that Jameson called me the Rotman Whisperer because I managed to speak to different departments within the university and, I guess connect the dots; just approaching the silos with some respect, some curiosity, and thoughtfulness really worked.

I think the conversations were so broad that it would have been nice to do a deep dive into any one of them because all of them were interesting. What are the mechanisms that are working and not working? I don’t know the research side of everything so as an administrator that really resonated.

I love the topic of social inequality. That really resonated because it’s something that I see on a day to day just driving through the city and observing my surroundings. Even the brown bags, like every time a speaker came in I felt so inspired after and it’s like, oh my god, I want to know more.

The legacy of MPI is a group of thoughtful people who asked thoughtful questions, and started a conversation before it was a conversation in the mainstream, is how it will be remembered for me.

MH: My name is Michelle Hopgood and I am the graphic designer at the Martin Prosperity Institute. So initially, when I started I applied for a job on the OCAD job board, and they were looking for an information designer, specifically for the project that they did in collaboration with U of T and ICP on AOTA, and the accessibility standards and what the economic impact of that was going to be.

And then, I guess they liked my work enough that they kept me on. About a week after I started working at the MPI I got a call to say that Dog Guides had a service dog for me. And I was like well I have to check because I just started this job. But then I was thinking, well they hired me for the AOTA project. If they don’t let me go get this service dog it’s kind of hypocritical. So anyway, a long story short, they let me go and get my service dog. And I worked remotely for a couple of weeks. And then, Legend became an addition to the Martin Prosperity Institute.

It’s hard for a graphic designer to really focus on information design. And that is something that I’ve always been interested in. So information design is basically graphic design for data visualizing as well as like info graphics; it’s basically a way of using graphic design to display information in a way that’s more understandable to the average person.

And so, working at the MPI has really allowed me to sort of develop that niche design style that I’ve been interested in. And I think also the people really make this workplace. There’s been so many amazing people come through here, and I made some of best friends that I have today, I made while working here at the MPI.

I’m probably most proud of the Persona Project because I almost broke myself working on that project. And it was all made worthwhile when we submitted it to the in-house design awards for my professional association RGD, and we were one of the winners for, I think that was in 2016 and it was the first year that they’d held the awards.

So the Persona Project was particularly hard because it was, basically I had to produce this stack of cards. It was like 125 or 130 cards. And we had to produce it in like two months, like that was like production start to production end. So it had to be printed by that time. There were a lot of things that I learned during that time. There were some big mistakes that were then fixed, and it’s probably the most memorable from that regard. And I think that a lot of the research is going to continue to live on, especially as Richard continues his path. And I hope that people will see the MPI as a different kind of research institute and a different kind of think tank that really tried to push the boundaries of how we interact with our audiences.

And so, I hope that is the legacy that will live on. I’m sad that MPI is closing because I feel like I got my dream job right off the bat, and so now I’m going to miss all of the people that I’ve worked with over the years. It’s been a really fun place to work. It’s just going to be a hard workplace to replace.

DK: Darren Karn, I’m a senior research associate here at the Martin Prosperity Institute. So in my previous life I was a geologist and I worked to remediate contaminated properties across the industrial wasteland of the States. So I’ve been to all sorts of hotspots, literally and figuratively I suppose. And my job was, I was the guy down in the hole wearing full anti-contamination suits and respirators spooning contaminated material into jars for analysis. And while that was pretty exciting, I realized that there was probably something else I could be doing. And I really loved the idea of sustainability consulting, so working with big companies, trying to figure out in maybe some way how to not create these messes in the future.

So I came back to business school to do that and ended up taking all of Roger’s courses. So he taught two or three courses at Rotman that were kind of unconventional. They weren’t necessarily part of the typical business school courses you think about; you know finance, marketing, accounting, that kind of stuff. It was a little bit more about thinking, thinking about thinking, decision-making, creative problem solving, and things along that vein.

I ended up being pretty lucky that after graduating I was able to work with Roger and Jennifer on just a four month project with something they were thinking about at the time. And I realized that there’s actually a whole different side of sort of business and work that you can actually make a bit of a career out of thinking. And that’s actually, that really turned into my opportunity here with Roger and Jennifer at MPI.

Nine years later we’ve been thinking about thinking, and why things are for a long time now. I really like the body of work that we’ve produced. So, I think the things I really enjoyed were things like the Persona Project, a few of the papers we put out like The Upside Down Theory.

But what I’m most excited about now is we’re weaving together all the learnings from all these papers and these projects from over the last few years into a final capstone piece, whether it’s a book or some other kind of publication, I’m looking forward to working with Roger over the next couple of weeks to get something like that out the door.

You know you come into business school kind of wide-eyed and you’re in your late 20s more often than not. You’re looking to advance and move up in the world. And it often seems that the business school student wants to have that place at the table, wants to be at the meetings that matter, wants to be talking to people who matter, and wants to have an influence and ability to actually make a change.

And what I think has been most interesting at MPI just because of the institute and who we are between Richard and Roger, and everyone that they know, is — as well as the fact that MPI was such a small team — is that all of us have had that place at the table over the years. We’re included in all the discussions. We’ve had a chance to exchange ideas with some of the leading thinkers in the world. I think for me when I think about it you know having the chance to have all those conversations, and to actually engage in ideas, meet some pretty interesting people, I think for me that’s what I look back at with a little bit of pride and happiness.

I feel like when we’ve been doing this work we didn’t necessarily do it with the thought as to the legacy, more of a thought as to what kind of impact will this work have and will we be able to influence opinion or decisions. And certainly, when you look back over the body of the work it’s…I mean, in the one sense it’s how do we sort of improve the prosperity of America. But on the other hand it’s really much more, how do we make sure that everyone has a chance.

And so, when I think about that legacy, I hope that at least our work in some way has shaped some decisions that people have made over the course of their careers, too that the legacy will maybe be that we’ve moved the needle a little bit. And that actually more people in America have more of a chance to actually feel prosperous.

I think I got more responsibility really, really early on in my career than I would have elsewhere at a place that was more established.

Richard, Richard’s work style, Richard’s enthusiasm, and of course all of the opportunities that we had working with Richard, those were the things that I appreciated the most. Before the first Ford election…so that election we ran this mayoral paper series, and we were running it but then we were also writing some of these papers, like short policy papers, thinking through the upcoming election, which turned out to be a really pivotal election.

And so that’s when I, along with Zara Matheson and Vass, did this mapping of occupational class in Toronto. And that became the divided city mapping project for other places in North America, and that carried over into Richard’s book, The New Urban Crisis. And we’ve written a couple of papers on it. It’s really interesting that it just started out as this one-off summer project, and it became a research agenda.

Around the time of The Great Reset book we’re thinking a lot about high-speed rail. And along with Ian Swain and Kevin we wrote this small little piece on it. And ultimately, I think in the North American policy conversations, high speed rail is still kind of seen as too expensive and not worth the investment. And it’s kind of this grand monorail-type project. I do feel that conversations hasn’t fully happened; comparator nations like in China and parts of Europe are building lots of high speed rail, and it seems to be doing just fine for them. The high speed rail projects in France and Spain have done really well.

At the top of your think tank as someone who is just writing every day, opining every day about the news of the day, you’re going to have to step away from a few things. And that was a case where we just didn’t have the bandwidth to keep exploring that, and talking it through. Young people, people who weren’t really even in the career stage or were just starting the career stage, so these were all people who now have careers in this field. Yeah, I think that’s going to, kind of by definition be the best legacy for the place. Because MPI will basically get, gets a share, gets credit for all of this stuff that these people are doing now in a more institutional way.

Like School Cities is, in many ways like the non-start-up version of MPI. MPI is kind of a start-up and a lot of the conversations that we started and infrastructure that we built, the sort of habits that we got into and the networks that we formed are all getting used right now as School Cities, which is like an actual…it’s eventually going to be a faculty at you know, one of the oldest universities in the country, gets formed.

JR: Jennifer Riel, I’m the managing director of strategy and innovation here at MPI. I came to work at MPI because I had previously been working with Roger Martin while he was dean of Rotman School. When he was leaving the dean’s role and transitioning to become academic director of the Martin Prosperity Institute, he talked to me about wanting to take on this big meaty project in the future of democratic capitalism, and asked whether I would be interested in spending a portion of my time working with him and the team on that project and on that topic. And it seemed like it was an interesting enough problem. Six years ago we knew something was coming. We didn’t know quite how big it would be, and it seemed like it would be an interesting challenge to continue working with Roger on.

My favourite part of working at MPI has been the conversations. So, I think what has been interesting about the approach that MPI took was an explicit desire to have different kinds of conversations. So, take an idea and via disparate group of people from different walks of life to bat it around for a while and see what comes out of it. Or go and have in-depth conversations with an individual living in Middle America about her life, and what matters to her and where she struggles. To the conversations we had at a lunch time Lunch and Learn where we were sharing what we cared about and what we did. Or what our kids were doing at home or whatever mattered to us in that moment.

And I think the wide variety of those conversations, from one-on-one with Jonathan Haidt about his work to a boisterous round table over lunch has been the most interesting part of the work for me.

I think the thing I’m most proud of from our time here is like the Persona Project. I think that it symbolizes how we want it to work which was to take a designerly approach and start with the real user and understand them more deeply. We didn’t know going in what we would find. It was big and comprehensive and involved a large team here. We really did all pull in together to make it happen. We learned a lot about those individuals. And so I think the quality of the work was also really, really high, the output won some design awards and felt like a really great artifact of our time together.

So I think on the Democratic Capitalism Project it is such a big hairy topic. I do believe that there are solutions, particularly on the democracy side that we could have explored more deeply that we didn’t even get to talk about. It’s such a crisis of democratic institutions right now, not just in America but globally. And so, you could spend another decade thinking about those problems and I think we did a very good job. I would pat ourselves on the back in terms of diagnosing an interesting problem. I’m not sure I’m as excited about the answers that we came to.

But you know it’s a starting point and I don’t think there are any perfect answers, but all we can do is hope that other people will pick that up and say, if that’s an interesting diagnosis what we can do to help generate ever more solutions to those problems. I think MPI’s legacy has a couple of dimensions. I think there is something in the way we chose to work that is interesting; that we didn’t come to the world with finished solutions or hard and fast recommendations, but rather with provocations and questions for them, and opened conversations in new ways. So I think my hope is that will have an impact on the way other think tanks choose to operate.

I think the other legacy is in the people; so there are whole bunch of people who walked through the doors of MPI over its, now more than 10 years of existence, and certainly intensively over the last six. And what they go on to do, the kind of work that they choose to do reflects back on all of us and I think is really the legacy that we leave. Hopefully, they got good training. And hopefully they got great contacts and the ability to connect with each other moving forward, as well. So the community that comes out of it is a big part.

SS: I’m Sarah Soteroff and I was the community manager for MPI. From the outset what was interesting to me was the topic areas images, and as I started to delve more deeply into work, what was interesting was the real life application of what these meant, and how we could look to apply the findings that these thinkers were working on in more broad applications for the everyday kind of person.

I think that MPI has an outsized personality. And I genuinely do think this attributed to Jameson. I think there was a lot of heft that was brought with the three pillars when it was Richard, Don and Rogers. And that Jameson was able to cull those into one, kind of cohesive narrative in a way that I think was probably difficult because they had a little bit of divergent topic areas of interest. And it wasn’t one area of interest that I was interested in, and because I worked across all three. But what I found so compelling for me was that there was always going to be kind of diversity of content for me to work through.

And there was a real collaborate spirit of no one ever telling you that you were dumb or that you didn’t know wat you were talking about, and more so let’s find a way to make this interesting. Let’s find a way to share this information, and what’s the ‘what’s next?’ Like what’s the takeaway. I really liked the fact that I could pop into anyone’s office and have a pick up conversations with anybody about literally anything. Policy, T.V. sports, entertainment, I felt like I was constantly being stimulated by everyone who worked there.

And loved that everyone I spoke to was passionate and engaged, and willing to talk to you about things that you knew less about, but also so interested to learn from everyone around them. And I felt that the environment was one where people were propping up and supporting one another. And were really looking to build on rather than cut down each other’s work.

I worked heavily on the Persona Project. Looking back at where it started and where it ended up, and the testament that I can give to the whole team that worked on that from research inception to how it was actually articulated, conveyed, and then from a design perspective, is so interesting. I was brought in after the interviews had been conducted to go through the raw data. And we looked at, what do you do with these personas, who did they represent, and why do the matter to people? And it was so interesting to me knowing how it turned out, what it looked like at the beginning. And then how interactive that site became; how much you could play around with the different data so that you could see what different data sets meant for different answers. It was really a beautiful project on at the end of the day, and there was so much meat on it.

I loved the events so much from a selfish perspective. I wish we did more of them because I felt like it was seeing our work actualized, and it was really getting to the community and bringing together great thinkers. I think the legacy from an academic prospect will be one of open and creative and really high level discussion about policy. And discussion about policy in a way that is not limiting to those who don’t have a policy background, I think is really…MPI did a really good job of making…I think at the beginning of the podcast you said making the complex colloquial…and I think that’s the ultimate theme of what MPI was working toward.

Because there’s so much that we see in academia, that we see produced from universities, that we see produced from really high-level thinkers that takes a distillation that either isn’t applicable to the everyday person, or we see the policy results so far down the line. Everything MPI did I felt like had immediate impact. And I think that’s really attributed to the content that they chose to work within, from democratic capitalism to the projects with cities. And I think it’s also really attributed to how MPI, how the leaders, and how Jameson worked to convey those messages outside of just the walls of MPI. It was a real look to what is the real life application.

And I think I keep coming back to that because data is important but ‘what does this mean’ is even more important. And I think MPI’s “what does this mean’ really is the lasting legacy.

VB: My name is Vass Bednar. From 2009 to 2010 I was a research intern at the Martin Prosperity Institute while I finished my graduate work. And then, years later, I think in 2014 I came back to work with Richard Florida as an associate director of his Cities program.

So I was first introduced to the Martin Prosperity Institute in the summer of 2008. I was the summer research fellow at the Ontario Association of Food Banks doing a report on the cost of poverty. And at the same time I was running a student-led academic journal that focused on issues related to hunger and poverty. And at that place that I was interning as the summer research fellow people were talking about Richard Florida coming to Toronto. Richard Florida, I was like, wow who is this guy? And someone was like, "oh, you don’t know who Richard Florida is?" And I didn’t.

So I ran out, bought a copy of Rise of the Creative Class, and as I started graduate school that September I knew that I wanted to work, I had this vision that I would grow up and work at a think tank. But wow, think tank, thought leadership; I know how to write reports and do research. I do that all the time. I pay to do that. What if the tables were turned and I could be remunerated for producing interesting intellectual things? So, I wanted to work in Martin Prosperity Institute. It was kind of like a beacon. I could see it from school. It was kind of across the street.

And I thought, you know maybe I could intern there or have some kind of placement to get exposure to people who are brave enough to talk and think about ideas and be provocateurs.

I really appreciated the bandwidth to be flexible and explore, to catch wind of the new data set, to reach out to an author talking about an idea on Twitter or that you heard on podcast and see collaboration. And the kind of mixing of a…you know that blog-like pace and oscillating or vacillating between mediums. So yeah, at the time as a young person I was able to pitch out you know we should do a little…at the time they were called insights…so this is when I was a research associate. Why don’t we do insights on A, B, and C? And it was like sure, show us that there’s something there in the data. And it didn’t have to be at three or six month project. It could be three hours or three days but it still could be worth injecting kind of out there and sort of learning from the response. So I really appreciated that.

We did a partnership with TVO’s The Agenda when they went on the road, which they no longer do. But they went on the road all across Ontario. And I was assigned to support, because I was a research intern, different cities. And one of the cities was Brockville. So I was cranking out these little mini reports on Brockville, Ontario, and other smaller municipalities. And what stood out is that because I was so assertive during the round tables, like very firm with the Brockville residents, they kicked off this other guy I worked with from the panel they were filming that night. I think they also needed maybe like a lady panellist.

So I got put on the panel. It was very scary. I was only an intern. I did not think that should be permitted.  But Kevin Stolarik, research director at the time, just sat me down for five minutes and was like, “you can do this; no matter what try to get these three points across.” And I think I managed to do it and it was quite a thrill. So was it a game changing report? No, but there was just something intriguing about that experience and also working at a place that supported me and thought,  actually she’s part of our team. She may not be with us forever but this is also a good opportunity for her. And like, off she goes.

I think we could have gone deeper using alternative datasets to complement what’s out there. So in an era of big data, and with the intellectual flexibility we had, we never quite got there. We’re pretty reliant as most people are on Stats Can microdata, to the extent that we could drill down to the neighbourhood level with particular sets. And we kind of dabbled, especially in our collaborations with City Lab. But the reality now with machine learning and artificial intelligence and surveillance capitalism, there’s a lot more information out there that tells us, teaches us about our neighbourhoods and our communities that we didn’t get a chance to tap into.

It was a very brave place and a brave thing, overall to put a think tank at a business school, right. To have academic rigour to be routed in so many different disciplines, but then also fundamentally talking about competitiveness, and about prosperity, and about inclusiveness as we go.

So, I think it will be remembered as a think tank where you could get a particular pulse that’s not available anywhere else. No report kind of knew where it was going at the end. We were able to say when we were wrong. We generated great discussions through simple indices. And I think in terms of the way we beautifully communicated ideas with our GIS specialist and our graphic designers, that set a different standard in Canadian think tanks that I see has trickled outwards to other places.

IG: That does it for this episode and the Shiftdisturbers series, in general. If you’re a long time listener of the show I hope you’ve enjoyed some of the work that we’ve highlighted, and maybe even found it inspiring. If you’re new to Shiftdisturbers there’s no better time to dive in than now.

I want to offer a big thank you to all the staff members, past and present, who spoke with me for this episode. Their time, intelligence and friendship have been greatly appreciated.

I was and still am the music journalist that Jameson mentioned off the top. I worked at the MPI office from the winter of 2014 through the spring of 2018 and loved every minute of it. It wasn’t until leaving that I appreciated what a truly unique place it was. Watching a group of very smart people identify problems with the world, and then use their various skillsets to try and make things better was truly inspiring.

Nevertheless, our work will live on through the continues efforts of both Richard Florida, now at the University of Toronto School of Cities, and Roger Martin, who will be summarizing much of the work we’ve done over the past few years in a forthcoming book.

Once again, I’m Ian Gormely, and thanks for listening. 

Roger Martin is professor emeritus of strategic management and former dean at the Rotman School of Management. In 2019, Roger was named the world’s #2 management thinker by Thinkers50, a biannual ranking of the most influential global business thinkers. He served as the institute director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship and the premier’s chair in productivity and competitiveness. From 1998 to 2013, he served as dean. In 2013, he was named Global Dean of the Year by the leading business school website Poets & Quants. 
Richard Florida is university professor at the Rotman School and the School of Cities at the University of Toronto. He is author of the global best-sellers The Rise of the Creative Class, The Flight of the Creative Class, and Cities and the Creative Class, as well as Who's Your City? He is a regular correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a contributor to The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Economist, and Harvard Business Review. He has been appointed to the Business Innovation Factory's Research Advisory Council and named European Ambassador for Creativity and Innovation.