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Student-run case competition aims to "build up the 6ix"

U of T group CivicSpark applies business-school model to policy issues

Isabelle Vanasse Grosdidier and Jenny Zhang)

“We gave them a time crunch,” Edwin White Chacon, one of the founders of CivicSpark, said at the conclusion of its first Undergraduate Public Policy Case Competition.

Yes, they did. Thirty minutes of prep time? Ten minutes to present your ideas on revitalizing the famously inadequate space under Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway? Pretty tight parameters.

But a team of three city studies undergraduate students from the department of human geography at the University of Toronto Scarborough, Abbas AliRobert Tran and Rebecca Roach rose to the challenge and emerged victorious Saturday in the suitably innovative environment of the MaRS Discovery District.  

The idea of organizing a case competition devoted to social issues developed spontaneously, as did CivicSpark, a fellowship of U of T students dedicated to urban debate that took shape last October. “Building up the 6ix” is their rallying cry.

Joe Becker-Segal, a St. Michael’s College student pursuing political science and Canadian studies, had been involved in case competitions through the DECA youth business organization. White Chacon (political science, ethics and law), who knew Becker-Segal as a fellow usher at the Ontario Legislature at Queen’s Park, thought the concept could do with some expansion. 

Why not take this high-pressure staple of management training and make the subject of the “case” a pressing social issue rather than the payroll problems of a corporation? Why not gather undergraduates in a central space and share some fresh ideas on, say, transportation in Toronto?

Sara Urbina (economics, geography), the third member of the CivicSpark triumvirate and, like White Chacon, a Woodsworth College student, was totally on side.

So, it turned out, were 20 other U of T students divided into five competitive teams, not to mention staffers from the CivicAction alliance of urban-minded thinkers and leaders, an organization with which CivicSpark enjoys a firm if informal relationship.

The morning began in the MaRS auditorium with pep talks by CivicAction project coordinator Adrianne Yiu and R. J. Kelford, a youth recruitment manager from MaRS (which supplied the space pro bono). Then the five teams got to work, presenting cases prepared in advance on the timely subject of transportation in Toronto.

On the jury were Danny Brown, an public space planner from the Urban Strategies firm; Daniel Fusca from the City of Toronto Planning Division; Jake Tobin Garrett from the non-profit organization Park People; Stas Ukhanov, a CivicAction fellow from the Metrolinx community relations team; and Siva Vijenthira, a project officer at CivicAction.

They decided on the two finalist teams and offered a Q & A session while the hopefuls repaired to conference rooms to prepare for the Gardiner showdown. The winning team from UTSC was chosen by ballot by those present in the MaRS auditorium. 

“Getting involved locally in politics and making sure that our generation is more aware of local and world issues,” is how Ali defines his objectives on the website of the UTSC Geography and City Studies Student Association. 

Victory was substantially its own reward for the UTSC team, but there are certain benefits. Members of the winning team will have an interview with CivicAction officers and a meeting with senior municipal leaders suited to the interests and needs of the individual students. 

There was no prize money. The modest registration fee of five dollars was meant to cover lunch and printing costs. Further support came from sponsorships by CivicAction and U of T’s Centre for Community Partnerships.

The CivicSpark people want their Undergraduate Public Policy Case Competition to be an annual event involving students from a range of schools and disciplines. There should be no limits to urban debate. 

“Maybe policing could be a case,” White Chacon said. “Or the first thousand days of a child’s life, which have been defined as crucial. There are lots of really great ideas.”

The idea is to get fresh perspectives on social policy out in the open through friendly and healthy competition. Also to get undergraduates studying the social sciences directly involved in urban issues.

An evaluation sheet was distributed at the end of the day. Feedback was positive.

“As one person put it, typically these events are for business and engineering students,” White Chacon said. “This was an opportunity to analyze and assess urban issues and present ideas that students think will work.”

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