Open City

Taking Chances, Being Wrong, Driving Innovation

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 10, 2011

Mayor Bob Bratina has been catching some flak lately for his tendency to speak off the cuff. Whether throwing out an alternate pie-in-the-sky solution to Randle Reef, musing about deamalgamation, or handing Hamilton International Airport over to the GTAA for management, Bratina's unscripted pronouncements can sometimes come across as politically tone-deaf.

Yet I find Bratina's habit of saying whatever he's thinking to be one of his more endearing qualities. Perhaps it comes, as observers suggest, from his years as a radio announcer tasked with filling hours of silence. Perhaps it simply reflects a curious intellect that is always playing with ideas.

Yet the source of all innovation is that very willingness to play with ideas - even, I daresay, a willingness to be wrong. As education adviser Ken Robinson put it in his brilliant TED talk on schools and creativity:

Kids will take a chance. If they don't know, they'll have a go. Am I right? They're not frightened of being wrong. Now, I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same as being creative, but what we do know is: if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original. By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. We run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes - and we're now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make.

We also run our governments this way, excoriating and punishing anyone - politician or staffer - who takes a chance. In a June, 2009 essay on how Hamilton could transform into an open source city, I argued:

The prevailing corporate (and public) culture would have to change from one that punishes errors (and hence drives them underground) to one that celebrates openness and sees problems not as faults to be punished but as important and valuable opportunities to improve the end product.

A vision sometimes pops unbidden into my head, of our city staffers and politicians in a long, wide room with a low ceiling, crouching with their heads down. If anyone is foolish enough to stick their head up, a sword swoops around and lops it off.

In a refreshing break from this form, Bratina broadcasts ideas the way a traditional farmer sowed seeds, casting them broadly in all directions. As the parable goes, some seeds are devoured by birds, some fall on stony ground, and some fall among thorns and are choked. Yet some fall on fertile soil and take root.

We can ding the Mayor for going off-message, but maybe that's the price to pay for the chance at uncovering something transformative.

In a political culture that Gil Penalosa has aptly characterized as "Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim...", a bit of a loose cannon may be exactly what we need to shake up our complacency. The question is: are we willing to tolerate some howlers if it means also uncovering the next truly innovative solution?

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By jason (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:14:59

good article Ryan, I too like the fact that he is willing to think outside of the box, although so far actual policy in this term has been status quo, and actually less progressive than the last term - half a stadium, LRT off the radar, Gore Park becoming a parking lot etc.....

Hopefully one of these days he'll muse about a creative idea that actually sticks and puts Hamilton on the map. He's bang on about Randle Reef - we're going to cap it for over $100 million and let my kids deal with the bigger, more expensive mess when the thing starts leaking or another minor earthquake damages the structure etc..... it's a band-aid solution that will have a short life span.

Comment edited by jason on 2011-03-10 10:15:27

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:56:54 in reply to Comment 60863

I'd like to be positive about this but it just seems like another 11th hour utterance designed to act as a layer of Teflon should a plan assented to by council go awry – just as with his Pan Am Stadium/SJAM stance, it gives him an out while always making time for more studies and more consideration before moving forward with anything. That's not necessarily transformative – it's just a reiteration of the study-it-to-death-and-then-then-bring-in-the-consultants culture that has been a political tarpit since, well, you make the call.

Bob has been in City Hall since 2004 (the Port Authority being a notable part of his ward constituency) and in local talk radio long before that – long enough to have been apprised of the Randle Reef issue and the plans to resolve it, long enough to influence the course of events during due process. And yet he's only now voicing his concerns. His curious intellect may always be playing with ideas, but I don't know if he's overly quick to voice his thoughts; often enough, the opposite is true.

The optics are of course sub-optimal. What this kind of turn often resembles is political disengagement and/or disregard for protocol. ("It's never too late to hop in the time machine.") In this case, we're talking about an intensely divisive, organizationally complicated multi-stakeholder, tri-governmental solution involving intransigent corporate actors (that have, since this dialogue began in the early to mid 90s, been sold to international concerns). Ripping the scab off of a 16-year-old debate is a good way to ensure that we continue to enjoy the toxic legacy. The long-game stamina required to pull off the best case scenario is especially suspect when it is widely held that this is a single-term mayor.

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:04:57 in reply to Comment 60870

I'm all for an open flow of ideas and for considered risk-taking, incidentally. I'd just like to see it occur within the agreed-upon time frame (in the case of Randle Reef, that'd be 1992/1995-2007, which strikes me as adequate elbow room for divergent opinions). The City is, after all, a corporation. Without a certain sense of urgency and a dash of political pragmatism, I feel that we'd be on track to be the municipal parallel to Duke Nukem Forever.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:21:58 in reply to Comment 60874

Is it also worth noting that creative, progressive and engaged citizens (often those who not even are late to the game) are routinely shut out, while the politicians they elected seem to have no trouble with (or qualms about) reheating bygone debates ad nauseam?

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:43:48 in reply to Comment 60863

With toxic waste like in Randle Reef, EVERY solution is a bandaid, you can't destroy toxic waste, you can only lock it down. Either we lock it down where it is or we disturb it, dig it up, move it somewhere else (good look finding anyone to take it) and lock it down there.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted March 11, 2011 at 12:59:33 in reply to Comment 60867

Actually it can be treated it is all about the cost.

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By Streamman (registered) | Posted March 11, 2011 at 22:10:52 in reply to Comment 60908

I'm interested to know how it can be treated, my initial thought was that capping was a band-aid solution. Can you please elaborate on ways that it could be treated?

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By Mogadon Megalodon (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:59:39 in reply to Comment 60867

There's that, too – fixing our problem at the environmental expense of another, presumably poorer and more rural community.

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By MattM (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:20:35

I agree that it's good that Bob is outspoken... but really, he has lost his vision ever since taking the mayor's seat. I almost feel as if he's a puppet and the old boys club is pulling the strings. It's really pathetic, because he used to be one of the most urban minded, progressive councilors this city had. Now it's like he's just a figure head.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:29:59 in reply to Comment 60864

I think he just knows that it was the suburban vote that won him the election, and now he has to serve their interests, but yeah, since the OBC in this town is heavily invested in sprawl, it amounts to the same thing.

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By blogsight (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:40:12

Too bad Bob doesn't read blogsites, he might enjoy this. Then again, he'd probably read this and find something to get offended by. "How DARE you suggest I'm ever wrong?"

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By MattM (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:55:15 in reply to Comment 60866

I guarantee he reads RTH. I chatted with him on other sites like this before, he is (or was) pretty active online.

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:54:50

Interesting and thought-provoking. Nice job. I tend to agree. I'd certainly prefer out politicians to be 'too' open versus muted and secretive. If nothing else, it generates conversation. And, as in the Randle Reef situation, musing about ideal solutions doesn't necessarily have to mean a full-stop to the agreed upon plan.

If people are more conditioned to this openness, it does mean any post-decision discussion results in opening up a new can of worms.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:12:57 in reply to Comment 60868

It is of course wickedly liberating if you have the luxury of musing aloud about the kind of ideal city that we might inhabit if you feel no obligation to actually stickhandle toward that outcome. One could, for example, be all for walkable urban communities and clever infill solutions but at the end of the day simply assent to the well-worn path of expanding your exurban tax base while letting the core moulder for another term.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted March 10, 2011 at 11:10:05

I think this is a big reason he was elected actually - the city needed more people attacking every possible idea during the site selection process for the stadium, and Bob was out there demanding that no site be taken off the table before it was given at least a cursory study. The only site he wouldn't consider at all was the East Mountain.

To people who weren't married to the idea of the West Harbour stadium and imagined that there must be a better location, Bob looked like the best choice going into the election as council was scrambling for a plan B when they'd shot down most of the plan Bs that Bob wanted to see studied.

Of course, then it turned out that no, there really wasn't.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 10, 2011 at 12:01:14

Bratina, in my recent experience, will agree with anybody and anything, no matter how much it conflicts with what he agreed on yesterday. Few years back a bunch of us rowdy anarchists marched through the core chanting "Cops out of Akwasasne, Cops out of Hamilton" in solidarity with troubles on that reserve. Bratina came by and agreed with everything we said. Or at least attempted to...for some reason people weren't quite convinced. I was a little embarassed to know the guy.

http://anarchistnews.org/?q=node/8008

I really used to like him...but in the last few years he's really become a career politician in the worst way. At least we all know where Rob Ford stands.

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By GrapeApe (registered) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 14:25:45

You know if he could construct his thought beyond the soundbite then I might agree he has something, but so far all I hear are synapse pukes that fail to connect any dots. Perhaps that's what it means to "let the chips fall where they may." As an example, the whole idea of finding something to eat the toxic waste isn't so far fetched, but the backhanded remark that "we're now the innovation center of the universe" shows poor leadership and some contempt for those people who could probably make his far flung idea a reality.

Comment edited by GrapeApe on 2011-03-10 15:07:56

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 10, 2011 at 15:53:04

How often have we seen the mayor absent himself from a debate and forego media comment until council argues it out and makes its will known, then either tilt with the prevailing breeze or take a halberd to the cables that were lashing some stonking great trial balloon to an already shaky political/economic reality?

Know what? It’d be great to wad that monstrous glob of Randle Reef PAH into a series of payloads and rocket it all into the merciless heart of the sun – Ambitious City! – but that doesn’t make it a pragmatic or productive contribution to a discussion that long since started and long since ended. And forgive me for being a shade cynical, but here's a team that won’t even give up their complementary lunch, let alone pay for the cheap way of “neutralizing” the city’s most poisonous industrial landmark. Having aborted additional tens of millions in stadium perks (in part to avoid an inflammatory property tax hit), should we expect this council to suddenly opt to triple its spending on harbour remediation – the byproduct of which will be essentially invisible regardless of how much they spend? Somehow I think not.

Like many trial balloons, it just seems like we're looking at 1% skin, 99% hot air.

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By H+H (registered) - website | Posted March 11, 2011 at 12:20:07

Interesting perspective Ryan.

I agree, real innovation is often aided by having the confidence to be wrong and to make mistakes. Basically, if you don't try, how will you know if it will or will not work.

While you may find Bob's unbridled blathering endearing, I find it unsettling. What's that they say about a thousand monkeys and a thousand typewriters?

I guess when you've spent years in the "let's take a break for weather and traffic" world of thinking, perhaps it's only natural to want to turn every thought into an articulated opinion. Personally, I don't view this as a sign of innovative thinking, rather a sign of undisciplined thinking.

Real innovation is hard work. Being a contrarian is easy. I would find it much more palatable if Bob's stabs at innovation were based on some well-articulated vision of moving Hamilton forward. The "Detail schemtail", or the "It's in my head so I thought I'd say it out loud" style of innovation practiced by Bratina is not what I expect from my senior leaders.

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By Tnt (registered) | Posted March 12, 2011 at 15:51:52 in reply to Comment 60906

Does this signal the man is beyond hope? Have we maybe widened the gap of negativity? Maybe I'm just thinking outloud now.

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By BrokeBrat (anonymous) | Posted March 11, 2011 at 17:24:12

The problem with Bratina's musings are that they are not backed up with any action plan. He has spent 100 doing nothing but presiding over Council. Fine. But when is he going to articulate and implement a vision? I suspect we are in for a long, hollow 4 years.

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By BoBra (anonymous) | Posted March 12, 2011 at 10:46:53

I agree with H+H, the Mayor's approach to thinking is more undisciplined than innovative. While I don't doubt that his heart is in the right place, there are a ton of practical steps that can be taken to move this city forward and we need disciplined, thoughtful leadership to make it happen. Frankly, other places have done the risk taking for us and have shown the road map to success in many areas. Heck, to get going, City Hall doesn't even need to be innovative. All they have to do is pick the best ideas out there and adapt them to the local context.

I get the sense that Bob is the Mayor Hamilton deserves, not the one Hamilton needs.

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By z jones (registered) | Posted March 12, 2011 at 13:11:00 in reply to Comment 60916

Bob is the Mayor Hamilton deserves, not the one Hamilton needs.

Ouch. It hurts because it's true.

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By Willy (registered) | Posted March 13, 2011 at 13:37:12

No, Hamilton had better choices but was seduced by a somnambulist with a basso profundo and a recognizeable name.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2011 at 15:49:00

Because it keeps coming up whenever we discuss Randle Reef, let's look at Sydney, Nova Scotia, our unofficial toxic sister city. Sydney is having its infamous Tar Ponds remediated at a cost of up to $400m total (2004 estimate) – the province is to pay $120m max, feds to foot the $180m balance. This arrangement is due to the fact that the polluter (Sysco) was state-owned for decades. This is a case where the liability is far less ambiguous and the guilty actor a Canadian holding in no uncertain terms, and yet the chosen course of remediation is still cap-in-place.

Given this sort of precedent, what politician would judge a perfect pie-in-the-sky solution to be "hold-on-a-minute-I-have -a-flash-of-innovative-genius" attainable? Especially when, as most will agree, this toxic mass is a problem that resulted from our own city's deal with the devil (eg. give us city-building industry and high-paying jobs and we'll turn a blind eye when the harbour becomes so toxic that the shores are lined with fish and fowl by the thousands).

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 13, 2011 at 21:27:36 in reply to Comment 60932

How "ambiguous" is the liability in this case, really? Is there any evidence that anybody but Stelco dumped coal tar there?

Not that there would have been much point to pursuing Stelco for this...they were still a keystone employer and had no money to speak of. US Steel, on the other hand, has very deep pockets and no apparent interest in employment here. Might as well try...what are they going to do, lock out the workers?

Seriously, does anyone here have the legal knowledge to know if this is possible?

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 14, 2011 at 09:09:34 in reply to Comment 60937

There may be a legal distinction between 19th century Hamilton Steel and Iron Company and 20th century Stelco – and, for that matter, between 20th century Stelco and 21st century U.S. Steel. And while it's true that U.S. Steel has has very deep pockets, they are also an American holding and I suspect they could use that chest to wage a protracted defense using NAFTA Chapter 11, the upshot of which would another decade without a solution (and possibly a cash prize for U.S. Steel at the end of it all). On top of which, Randle Reef was identified as a huge toxic liability 22 years ago, and in all of that time, nobody has gone after the steel industry in any real way. Does that impact our chances of a successful resolution in the courts? I haven't the legal knowledge to begin to answer that, but it strikes me as a possible problem.

Unspoken in all of this, of course, is that most of the industry north of Burlington Street is built on reclaimed land, which opens up huge unknowns in terms of remediation. Industry filled in about a third of the bay, and that work was done during a far less enlightened era. It's anyone's guess as to how many Randle Reefs will eventually be found underground.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 14, 2011 at 11:54:38 in reply to Comment 60944

The only thing I can think of that would have bearing is Stelco's repeated refusals to give anything but in-kind contributions to the remediation effort, and how they have always specifically refused to give money.

I'd bet that's a solid attempt to avoid setting any kind of precedent for restitution in court. Or rather, I suspect that they're avoiding that particular $100 million bet.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 14, 2011 at 13:43:35 in reply to Comment 60945

I'm sure that's part of it, but it's not just them hedging. If there was a reasonable expectation of a payday from these companies, I suspect that our governments wouldn't be so hot on picking up the tab. The local anti-business spin is something that probably played a role as well – grassroots zoning headaches aside, Hamilton seemingly goes of its way to be "open for business" like a Reeperbahn trollop when it came to manufacturing jobs and might be easily put off the idea of publicly excoriating one of the companies that put it on the map. (The press for action of any kind locally was led by NGOs.)

It would be interesting to see how much headway has been made in the US with the NRDC, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Waterkeeper and such in cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh et al. From what I can tell, not much (certainly not in comparison to worker-related lawsuits).

http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-1151345.html
http://www.consumerinjurylawyers.com/legal-news/bethlehem-steel-key-highway-shipyard-worker-awarde

Anyone have an idea of how many North American municipalities have waged successful environmental law cases against cornerstone industries who turned into legacy polluters? Again, I'm in the dark here.

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By Tnt (registered) | Posted March 17, 2011 at 10:29:58 in reply to Comment 60950

Isn't that the whole mantra of that Erin Brockovitch lawyer?

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2011 at 12:09:24 in reply to Comment 61045

True, the lawyers are only so much help. What we need is a single mom indentured to her legal representative discovers the official cover-up by accident after stumbling on medical records misplaced in real estate files during the course of working a cold insurance file.

The narrative of A Civil Action would also be applicable.

Either way, these inspiring precedents demonstrate the strategic benefit of tireless pro bono work, legal professionals putting their careers in jeopardy, the utility of a steady supply of human victims, the willingness of the state to go after bad actors – and of course lucky breaks.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2011 at 15:52:58

*My bad. STP cost breakdown is for the first $300m..... the feds are on the hook for any overuns up to $400m, and the province is committed to a contribution of $120m max.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted March 13, 2011 at 17:54:01


"Silicon Valley’s greatest advantage isn’t its diversity; it is the fact that it accepts and glorifies failure."

http://techcrunch.com/2010/10/17/japan-to-fix-your-economy-honor-your-failed-entrepreneurs/

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By BobInnes (registered) - website | Posted March 27, 2011 at 20:41:01

Maybe Bratina was daydreaming. Or maybe it was just a slow news day, or the Spec editor was just bored and trying to dig up a little spring fever???

Arrg. Religious Spam is new at RTH?

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