Alex Paterson

Event recap: Drilling down on the Asian cities agenda

March 29, 2013

Canada 2020’s third panel in the Canada We Want in 2020 Speaker Series took place in Ottawa on March 27 in front of an engaged crowd of 200 at the Château Laurier Hotel.

Asia, and the so-called Pacific Century, is definitely a popular topic in Ottawa these days. But much of the debate is at a very general level (read our Blog: Why Asia ‘It’s Big!’ won’t cut it). Our aim is to become more granular in our recommendations, hence the cities focus of our events.

To help us dissect the action and opportunities in Asia’s cities, Canada 2020 co-Founder, Tim Barber convened a panel, with:

  • Alessandro Pio, Resident Director General of the Asian Development Bank;
  • Sharon Christians, Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs at Bombardier Transportation;
  • Geoff Cape, CEO of Evergreen / CityWorks
  • Rana Sarkar, outgoing President of the Canada-India Business Council

The audience benefited from an excellent framing presentation prepared by Edward Leman of Chreod Ltd., a Canadian consultancy with a long history of work in the urban areas of Asia. This presentation suggested that Canada should move beyond resource exports to supply Asia’s cities with the range of skills, expertise and products needed to transform them into sustainable, liveable places: for example, green buildings, urban planning, transportation both within and between cities, as well as support for local governance models, agencies and education systems that facilitate an improved urban life.

The deck left us with two innovative proposals. The first was for a joint Export Development Canada / CPP Investment Board fund of $1bn for companies seeking to invest in Asia’s urban regions. The second was to use Canada’s granting agencies (NRC, SSHRC, IDRC, etc.) to spur research in global urban innovation through a $100m fund.

The first panelist to speak, Alessandro Pio, stressed the tremendous opportunities represented by Asia’s cities, but also reminded us that poverty remains a huge issue. Numerically, most of the world’s poor are in the emerging middle-income countries of Asia, notably China and India: lots of basic human development problems remain to be addressed. We must also recognize that we do not have all the solutions: Canada has much to learn from Asian cities.

Sharon Christians represents Bombardier Transportation, one of Canada’s global industrial leaders and a big presence in urban Asia where rail technology is so central to mobility and connectivity of populations.

Sharon spoke of the support that competitor countries receive from the very highest levels of their own governments (and noted Canada’s failings on this front). She also spoke of the need to focus trade missions at city level and of the opportunities for Canadian companies from the same sector to work together using a systems approach to provide turnkey solutions to quality of life issues facing Asian cities. Finally, she stressed the requirement for ‘localisation’, identifying and working with local partners to develop and implement proposals.

Geoff Cape is very focused on supporting the development of sustainable cities, globally. Through CityWorks, he is collaborating with the World Bank and World Economic Forum on identifying global infrastructure needs for the future. His principal argument was that Canada should capitalize on its own great cities to gain advantage in Asia. But, he cautioned, we need to be doing “fantastically well at home” if we are to succeed overseas. This requires investment in domestic infrastructure and urban solutions here.

Finally, Rana Sarkar focused on soft infrastructure – that is the systems, the institutions, and governance that enable these cities of scale to operate and grow in a manageable way. We are seeing, Rana said, a series of “crisis needs” that will motivate leaders in the area to seek solutions from external partners. This creates opportunities for co-learning from the Asian experience. Governments need to help “jump start” this process so that we can overcome our “connectivity problem”. The region seems far away both geographically, and in an intellectual sense, to those who are in the decision making roles that matter to our relationship with Asia.

Other issues that arose during the discussion included that:

  • Canada still lags on governmental support to business.
  • We should try to prepare for unpredictable shifts in the way that Asia develops. It is simply not possible for all the predictions about city growth to hold true (because of carrying capacity issues), so we need to be agile in recognizing what is happening and then respond appropriately.
  • Canadian companies – particularly small and medium sized ones – need to work together to develop and exploit opportunities. Time is usually the constraint here.
  • We should strive to create showcase solutions at home – and overseas – to help us increase our mindshare amongst Asian decision-makers.
  • There may be more opportunities for Canada in second tier cities: Geoff Cape suggested that we identify and target just three Chinese cities, Alessandro Pio even provocatively proposed that we should re-focus efforts away from China entirely.
  • Canada must move beyond the trade agreement agenda, particularly given the increasing decentralization of decision-making in Asia countries (to municipal level, for example). Governments can help open doors but it is companies that need to develop long-term relationships.

Certainly, it seems that Canada is continuing to miss opportunities by: not projecting our brand, not investing in cities at home, not providing off-the-shelf solutions, not deploying our diplomatic and high-level government resources effectively and remaining too focused on the export opportunities and destinations of the past.

Helpfully, Alessandro Pio pointed to a good place to start for Canadian companies wishing to test their feet in Asia’s waters. Canada is a shareholder and financial supporter of the Asian Development Bank, yet it currently accounts for a disproportionately small amount of ADB procurement (0.3%). There should be significant opportunities for expansion. Companies that engage with the ADB have a clear, low risk entry point into Asia.

Our audience and Twitter Q&A session was lively with questions focusing mostly on action: how do we implement this ambitious Asian cities agenda?

Questions were asked about: how we should best configure trade missions (trade houses?)?; how companies can be persuaded to coordinate their efforts (perhaps with the leadership of larger corporations such as Bombardier)?; and how there can be better coordination between different levels of government?

We also touched upon whether Canada can be a leader of international institutions operating in this area (which was felt to be difficult in the current environment, partly for Canadian reasons and partly due to the skepticism with which many of these institutions are viewed) and whether the Canadian banking system, with its new capital requirements, is well-poised for entry to, or expansion in, Asia.

To recap on the whole event, visit our event page where you can watch the video and read the background materials.

If you have any questions, comments, or would like more information about our work on Asia, contact Canada 2020 at

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Event recap: Drilling down on the Asian cities agenda

Canada 2020’s third panel in the Canada We Want in 2020 Speaker Series took place in Ottawa on March 27 in front of an engaged crowd of 200 at the Château Laurier Hotel.

You can recap by watching the entire video on our event page, or read this summary.

Blog: Why ‘Asia – it’s big!’ won’t cut it

Our conversations on Asia are stuck in a rut – and that’s a problem. If we’re going to help each other be engaged members of the policy community that shapes and forms opinions and decisions, we need to be smarter in how we talk about the opportunities and risks in engaging the new pacific century.

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