The City of Toronto is one of the partner cities of the Helsinki Energy Challenge. The city was so impressed with the idea of government collaborating with stakeholders and innovators to find game-changing, sustainable solutions that they decided it was something they definitely wanted to explore.

“I’ve had so much fun it’s exhausting”, says Rob McMonagle with a laugh. McMonagle works as Senior Advisor on the Green Economy for the City of Toronto. For the last nine months, he has been hard at work facilitating the Canadian team’s participation in the Helsinki Energy Challenge.

“This has been a really fun project because people’s eyes light up when we start talking about this and what we’re trying to do. It’s also been a challenging process that has opened a lot of minds in Toronto on how to develop things through partnerships”, McMonagle continues.

Toronto is among the organisations and cities that have been collaborating with the Helsinki Energy Challenge to spread the word about the competition. They see the global potential this project has in producing the solutions we so desperately need to fight the climate crisis.

McMonagle’s role is in economic development at the city of Toronto – he focuses on helping the city’s green sector grow. He explains that while Toronto is one of the global leaders in green technology, collaboration and partnerships have not traditionally come that naturally to organisations in North America.

“There is an independence of thinking and governments tend to work in silos, consulting with stakeholders instead of collaborating with them. The Helsinki Energy Challenge is an interesting example of government partnering with stakeholders and working with the best of everyone to find the right solution.”

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Rob McMonagle is Senior Advisor on the
Green Economy for the City of Toronto

On a mission to build international relationships

The story of Toronto’s journey in the Helsinki Energy Challenge began last October in Copenhagen, where delegations from 40 cities were gathered to rally around ambitious climate action at the C40 World Mayors’ Summit. The team from Toronto was introduced to Helsinki Energy Challenge Project Director Laura Uuttu-Deschryvere, who impressed the Torontonians with the concept of the challenge.

“After the official meetings were over, there was a lot of talk about the challenge among the Toronto delegates. We all thought the idea was really cool and it really coincided with our mission of building international relationships among clusters and with our environmental initiatives at the city”, Rob McMonagle says.

So when the Helsinki Energy Challenge was later looking for city partners, McMonagle says it was a pretty easy sell to the senior management at the City of Toronto. In addition to being a partner, they also quickly decided that they wanted to help form a Canadian team to take part in the challenge.

A bold goal demands bold action

The Mayor of Toronto John Tory was also quick to appreciate how the City of Toronto could benefit from getting involved with the Helsinki Energy Challenge. After all, Toronto’s green industries are the fastest growing sectors of business. Tory sees fighting climate change as good business for the city.

“The goal of getting to carbon neutrality by 2035 is bold but with the threat of climate change looming, there is no better time to be bold. We know that cities is where the real action is on climate change and Toronto’s green industries are up for the challenge. We want to help the city of Helsinki in meeting this very important challenge”, John Tory said in his opening remarks at the start of the local's team's design meeting.

The City of Toronto promoted the Helsinki Energy Challenge to solution providers and innovators around Canada, which resulted in a large multidisciplinary team of industry players that include members from universities and companies across the whole supply chain: innovators, producers, enablers, builders.

“The collaboration among all these organisations has really brought the greatest ideas to the top. You can do some amazing things when that happens”, says Rob McMonagle.

New challenges ahead?

For the City of Toronto the Helsinki Energy Challenge is an opportunity to build those strong connections between academia, government and the private sector. The biggest benefit is that when everyone starts to see how each other work, it results in a cohesion that continues after the challenge has ended. But according to Rob McMonagle, at least for Toronto, that’s not the only advantage.

“This challenge goes beyond dealing with one city and how to get to net zero emissions. We’re also looking at export opportunities around the world, exploring clusters in other countries that can complement our own clusters.”

McMonagle says that the Helsinki Energy Challenge experience has been so impressive that the City of Toronto is already planning a challenge of their own. Toronto was supposed to be hosting the global circular economy forum this year, but due to the Covid-19 situation, the event had to be postponed.

“We started thinking if we could do a design challenge instead. There’s a strong circular economy network in the Nordics and we would love to bring Nordic companies to Toronto virtually to do a design sprint with our companies”, McMonagle envisions.

Text: Liisa Leeve
Photo: Destination Toronto