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Yonge Interviews: Rahul Bhardwaj, CEO & President of Toronto Community Foundation

Last week at the launch of the Vital Signs report, Rahul Bhardwaj, the CEO and President of the Toronto Community Foundation, outlined five recommendations for making a better Toronto.

For one, Bhardwaj emphasized the significance of connectivity in bridging neighbourhoods, relaying this to issues of transit and public health. Secondly, Toronto needs an affordable housing strategy to ensure the "right housing for everyone." Third, we need more public space. Fourth, we need to "put a dent in youth unemployment." And finally, we need to rebuild the Toronto brand.
But there was one key message in his speech woven across all his recommendations and that's that Toronto cannot solve any one problem on its own.
"What Toronto needs most of all is a new way of thinking about the city," he said in his speech at the Canadian Club of Toronto. 
Yonge Street caught up with Bhardwaj to discuss in greater depth some of these recommendations as well as what Toronto—and Torontonians—can start doing now to maintain our place as an internationally competitive city. 
In your opinion, what was Toronto's greatest strength to come out of the report?
From a very high level perspective, our greatest strength is we are getting some of the big things right. I said in my speech there is great risk in trying to isolate any particular strength or weakness because everything is so integrated. What I think about getting the big things right, an external validation of that is the Economist magazine ranking us fourth in the world's livability. There is an objective standard out there that says guess what, you're doing something right here. 
But when we look at what people expect in their cities, we've got some really good things happening. The crime rate is down by seven per cent from 2011, we're still one of the safest cities not only in Canada, but North America and the world, particularly on a large level, and safety is really key to people's quality of life. 
When we look at some of the other things that we wanted to make progress in, the environment is really important so greening is important, and it's been part of the Toronto dialogue for a while. We're making good progress there. When we look at the economy, we're seeing some real progress in areas. When you look at the downtown core, we've got 14 percent employment growth, $1.2 billion to the local economy through digital arts and media, our financial services sector remains quite strong. When we look at the poverty trend in the overall region that's trending down.
But what do you think about our weaknesses? I know in your speech you said our weaknesses our not our weakness as a city, but was there something in the report that concerned you?
Every city has a good news, bad news story. There's nothing new about that, when we look at Vital Signs what really struck me is the challenges we face they're not just blips on the chart, these are what I would call unprecedented challenges, trend lines that have been going on for a long time. 
Isolating independent good things and independent not-so-good things isn't all that helpful. The point about all this stuff is all of these things are connected, much the way a lower crime rate will help attract more business and is helpful for the economy, when you look at something like affordable housing, an aligned strategy among the various sectors has a chance of tackling it, but just throwing a bunch of money at it is not going to do any good. Or looking at creating new funds to incent businesses to hire students, sure that's a good step in the right direction, but it's no where near the system-wide change that we need to be thinking about if we're serious about tackling those issues.

Right, and I believe you called this thinking "network thinking." Would you mind elaborating a little bit about what you mean by that?
The idea there is that if we look at all those things in isolation all we do is keep running around trying to plug the gaps. But if we recognize that all of these things are interconnected, that when we need to solve issues what we really need to do is do it on a network level. 
We've got a lot of mismatches. The biggest mismatch we have is around youth unemployment. We have an excellent education system, we have a huge private sector that is really starting to get back on its feet and they're sitting on a ton of cash, but they're saying we don't have the workers that we need. So there's 50,000 odd jobs in the city of Toronto that can't be filled and yet we've got enormous unemployment going on. That mismatch is only remedied if you think about it on a network level not just a one-off level. 
In your speech, you made five recommendations for making a better Toronto. Among them, you talked about the significance of connectivity. Is that what you mean by connectivity and network thinking?
That's certainly a part of it, but the connectivity part is to remind people we live in a city that really loves its neighbourhoods, which is a really good thing. But sometimes we tend to look a little too inward where we need to be a little more cognizant of the strength of our individual neighbourhoods, which really rises and falls on the network of all the neighbourhoods in the city. Which means that some of the issues we have right now are literally that big that we need to be thinking about them from a connecting standpoint, a network standpoint, and transit is the obvious one where people can really see it, but the connectivity is on a network level.  
Crucial to this is you said Toronto is lacking an identity of "what do we stand for?" You recommended that we need to rebrand and rebuild Toronto, and I'm wondering what do you think needs to happen in order to do this and what do you think we need to rebrand Toronto as?
I've been in a number of sessions over the last decade where they've tried to rebrand and they've gone through some vary professional processes of rebranding but we always end up with a tagline. There does need to be some leadership around really wrestling this issue to the ground because we've got a fantastic city, but part of what makes it fantastic is the complexity of it. There's so many facets of the city that makes this masala of a brand that makes Toronto a great city, we talk about diversity is our strength, but that is kind of our tagline, people don't come to Toronto to experience just diversity, there's more to it. 
You ended your speech by encouraging Torontonians to vote in the next election. What factors should people take into consideration when filling out that ballot? 
In the absence of knowing who the names are on the ballot, we've got the luxury of a little bit of not having to get too far ahead in some respects. What I wanted people to take away was that the connectivity of everything that is going on in Toronto the fact that we are a network. Remember, most people know their city in the function of where they live, where they work and what they see, so getting people to take their eyes and lift them beyond just that to the network that is Toronto helps them get a better sense of what is going on. 
When it's keep calm and get ready to vote that is get informed, start reading Toronto's Vital Signs, get an idea as to some of the macro issues in the city, some of the micro ones as well, what some of the complexities are, but also recognize the importance of the network and recognize that you're also part of a network. It really was to say to people 'get engaged,' get engaged with your own network and get your network engaged with what's going on in the city. There were a lot of people in the room that day that really have become disengaged and this was a claim for them and for all of Toronto to get ready for the next election because there are a lot of big issues at stake. 
This interview is part of an ongoing series by Sheena Lyonnais profiling Torontonians with ideas that can change the city. It has been condensed and edited.
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