Innovator Profile: Michael Alexander

Jackie Pichette
Research and Communiations Officer, SFU Public Square

Innovator Profiles highlight extraordinary community members that are making a difference.

Michael Alexander is the director of City Conversations. He is passionate about “bringing joy to people by making cities better places to live.”

Photojournalist turned environmentalist turned urbanist, Michael Alexander spent years championing change in the city of San Francisco. But an antagonistic American political culture and San Franciscans' "preference to debate public policies without making decisions" eventually took their toll. In 2006, feeling burnt out and eager to recharge, Michael and his wife Dianna decided they would test the waters upstream in Vancouver.

Living in Vancouver, Michael says he was struck by the difference between American and Canadian cultures. He found Canadians, generally, to be better listeners, less confrontational and, most intriguingly to him, more interested in conversation.

“I don’t know if Canadians fully appreciate how special it is that they can have conversations about complex subjects with multiple points of view,” he says. At the same time, however, Michael couldn’t help but detect that some opportunity for that conversation was missing.

Working on urban issues in San Francisco, Michael was on the board of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), an organization host to regular lunchtime forums on urban issues. It dawned on Michael (who continues to hold his position as co-chair of SPUR’s Advisory Council) that this was the model Vancouverites needed to start their conversation.

“And here’s what I love about Vancouver,” says Michael. Armed with an idea to bring lunchtime urban-inspired dialogues to the city of Vancouver, he approached friend and former teacher Gordon Price. “Only 40 days after having broached the subject, we held our first City Conversation. It was ‘yes, yes, yes’ all the way down the line.”

Inspired by the SPUR model, City Conversations quickly became something of its own. The discussions are not just about planning topics, but focus broadly on public issues that affect residents of Metro Vancouver. The emphasis is on a two-way exchange of information and ideas. “We bring in people with lots of knowledge on a subject, and give them seven minutes to lay out their perspective. Then we encourage participants—who might normally be considered an audience—to ask questions of the presenters and engage in a dialogue with each other,” Michael explains.

It’s a program that’s helping to enrich and maintain that distinctive Canadian culture that Michael says he’s so happy to be immersed in. What’s more, it’s giving participants opportunities to engage in meaningful democratic dialogue. “The more we encourage that,” Michael believes, “the more we encourage public participation in all aspects of life.”