In February 2009, Andrew Cohen wrote a column in the Ottawa Citizen called Ottawa in Still Life about the seemingly huge level of indifference that residents in Ottawa have about their community. It seemed only natural that in a city so dominated by government that Ottawa's civic culture would also reflect the same risk-averse, 'someone-else-is-in-charge' mentality so characteristic of the public sector. If someone-else-is-in-charge, then why should I be involved.
Around the same time Ken Gray, also writing in the Ottawa Citizen, had an intriguing story entitled The Ottawa You Want  about the kind of community Ottawa residents would like to see. He was surprised by the volume and quality of responses he received.That response suggested that there was a real need for an ongoing vehicle to allow residents to demonstrate their ownership in their community and contribute to "the Ottawa we want". It also suggested that maybe Ottawans were not as indifferent as some have thought.
Ottawa's leaders have been notorious for not being able to make decisions. A good part of that collective inability to agree on change is the near absence of opportunities for residents to share their ideas about the city and its future. Without clear links to the community conversations that could engage and animate residents about their futures, our leaders have no anchor for their debates. Consequently, those debates devolve into petty skirmishes in an ongoing game of 'gottcha'. Policy is reduced to a process of political positioning, with little regard to the outcomes citizens might actually want. Cynicism of the public process grows, voting rates decline, citizenship declines, and the legitimacy of the governing body is called into question. Of late, it seems all of these unhealthy symptoms are being reflected in Ottawa's civic culture. Can we turn this around? As a community, can we begin to talk to one another once again?
In particular, the inter-related issues of food security, peak energy and climate change represent a significant challenge to our national, provincial and local leaders leaders here in Ottawa. We are increasingly aware of the potential for turmoil and harm these issues represent. Yet to date there is little apparent action to improve our local adaptive capacity and resilience to risks these issues pose.
Typically, we expect our leaders to do the right thing for us because we believe them to be 'in-charge'. As a result, many people often abdicate their ownership stake in their community because if our leaders are 'in-charge', then they don't have to be. Still we all live together, side by side as neighbours, benefiting from each other's contributions to the community, dependent in many ways on each other, and owing each other a series of obligations as the price of the rights and quality of life we enjoy. Maybe we need to recall our status as owners in our community, and that we are capable of making choices about the Ottawa we want. We need to begin talking to one another so that maybe we can know what we want and then we begin to understand the trade-offs we may have make to address the food-energy-climate triangle.
Wikis are a perfect tool for this form of self-organization, so I'm hopeful that this site can stimulate a conversation about the future possibilities that we as residents can imagine and would like to live into, as well as the contributions we may be willing to make towards those ends.
There is an environmental theory called "soft energy paths" which emphasizes conservation, demand reduction and energy efficiency but it begins primarily with a determination of the values and choices that shape the alternative future people want. Therefore I invite you to contribute your ideas of what Ottawa might be like. Try and be as precise as you can. Use stories and pictures of what you like about Ottawa as well as identifying things that could use improvement. What is working and what is not? Contribute too, your stories from other places that you think could be replicated here.
How do you imagine our economy, our environment, our educational and health systems? Can we imagine a possibility of prosperity without growth? The old adage applies that "if you don't know, or can't imagine, where you're going, then any path will do." How do you imagine we are as a community? What kind of values, assumptions, and community culture should we hold? What sort of place do we want for ourselves and our children? Keep in mind also what is necessary and what would be simply 'nice to have'. As a starting point we have created a new page "The Possibilities We Want" to kickstart the envisioning process.
Try not to get too distracted by the failings and problems of the past. If we can imagine a new shared future and can work together to live into that possibility, the failings of the past will become like the problems of darkness when the light is switched on. The challenge then becomes to construct the necessary energy and food systems as well as the climatic resilience to support those possibilities. Down the road we're hopeful that we can bring a number of experts together in Ottawa to catalyze the debate further and provide us with more options.
What would you be willing to contribute to this new future? What would you expect from others? How would we have to be together? What information would we need to know and share?
Without a doubt these are big questions. Yet even the biggest problems can be solved one conversation at a time. However, if we can't even talk about them, then if the climate changes and the food comes in short supply we can't expect to handle things any better than we have in the past.