Dr. McCarney is a self-proclaimed “data nerd” turned “ISO nerd”. She wholeheartedly believes that the international standardization of data is the fuel to propel positive change in cities.
“I’m a devoted urbanist, and I believe in equipping the advocates for change with the data they need. It wasn’t in my life plan to sit in a 6-hour meeting building yet another ISO standard, but here we are because it’s just so important to get it right. I’ve always said, cities are where it’s at.”
She began her career as a researcher having completed her Ph.D at M.I.T. and has worked for the United Nations in Nairobi, the World Bank in Washington, and as a professor at the University of Toronto. “Those three parts of my career path really pointed to the need for standardized data.”
McCarney has been the Convener of ISO/TC 268’s Working Group 2 on City Indicators since 2012. Before 2010, she hadn’t heard of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) but understood that cities were lacking high calibre globally standardized data.
“I knew there was a gap very early on that had to be addressed, both during my academic research and then at the World Bank. For example, the World Bank was funding large infrastructure projects in Kenya, in South Africa, in Colombia and in Malaysia, but the data on the ground to inform these investments was often weak and uneven. It wasn't standardized which meant cities weren’t comparable. It wasn’t apples to apples.”
This made it very difficult for decision makers to make solid investment decisions in cities because the city-level data wasn’t strong. Recognizing this, the World Bank approached McCarney to tackle the problem. She built the Global Cities Institute at the University of Toronto to develop criteria that could be used to collect comparable data and tested it with a pilot project.
“We saw that there were 1100 indicators from just nine cities, and only two of them were comparable. So that was the turning point.”
For example, emergency response time was one of these incomparable indicators. The issue was that some cities were measuring from the time of dispatch of the emergency vehicle while others would measure from when the emergency call came in. This could mean several minutes difference between cities, making it look as though some places were weaker than others in emergency response when they weren’t.
From that pilot project emerged the work of narrowing down the indicators to 100 of the most important ones, in consultation with 200 cities across the world. “Upon completing this consultation, we realized it already looked like a standard, with definitions, methodologies, all the guidelines. It made sense to go to ISO.”
ISO determined that Technical Committee 268 Sustainable Cities and Communities would be created, and McCarney was asked to convene Working Group 2 dedicated to building key performance indicators for cities. Since then, the group has published ISO 37120 Sustainable cities and communities — Indicators for city services and quality of life, the first international standard for city data, along with two others, ISO 37122 - Indicators for Smart Cities and ISO 37123 – Indicators for Resilient Cities, all now referred to globally as the ISO 37120 Series for Cities.
Although the data collected by cities following these standards can be used in many ways, two of the most important are for economic development and strategic planning. “Cities are using this data for investment attraction and economic development strategy as well as to support their strategic planning goals.” Being equipped with high calibre data helps cities to monitor how they are ‘moving the needle’ as a result of investments. “It helps senior levels of government decide where to put their money because the data helps them prioritize. They can measure the performance of drinking water quality and storm water drainage for example and see the results of their investments.”
The need for this type of information is stronger than ever as the world contends with climate change and attempts to measure progress toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The ISO 37120 Series supports cities in localizing the global and national goals on sustainable development.
Working Group 2 is now getting ready to publish a new ISO standard for Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) indicators for cities.
“Cities are telling us they need a framework for ESG because they want to be responsible to their citizens and also, in some cities, to accelerate their ability to issue bonds and be more responsible to investors across debenture markets.” [Debentures are types of bonds or other debt instruments unsecured by collateral.]
McCarney joined the steering committee of the Canadian Standardization Advisory Committee on ESG to foster coordination and collaboration among Canadian sector representatives to provide feedback and advice on key sector priorities and gaps on ESG, which could be addressed by the standardization system. Recommendations from the group’s work will be published by SCC in June. McCarney is also co-chairing the ISO ESG Coordinating Committee on behalf of Canada with UK and Brazil, to advise on the direction of ISO’s strategic and technical activities for ESG.
McCarney says this global work on ESG standardization at ISO is timely and ISO is pivotal in bringing trusted standards to the forefront in this current global market.
At the city level this ESG work at ISO is also critical. Cities require ESG frameworks that are globally standardized, and the ISO/TC 268 Working Group will continue to create indicator frameworks that cities can use to attract investment for infrastructure aimed at more resilience preparedness, addressing climate mitigation, building clean transit, and investing in affordable housing to create more sustainable cities. Cities are key actors in the journey to a more sustainable future.
“This type of data is crucial; it changes the culture of cities and creates better lives for citizens. I truly believe this work is propelling change every day, and that this work has never been more important, especially as critical global challenges are increasingly hitting the ground in our cities.”