Lighting on CN Tower could signal our progress

Toronto Star, May 31, 2007
Peter MacLeod

Yesterday we learned that on July 1, the CN Tower will get a facelift. Quietly, for months now, engineers have been installing thousands upon thousands of super-bright LED lights inside the elevator shafts and upward to the top of the tower's mast.

On Canada Day, officials will throw the switch, illuminating the tall, grey silhouette that has stood against Toronto's nighttime sky since its last set of exterior lights was switched off in the 1990s.

The new technology is impressive. These lights are programmable, produce millions of colours and use less than half the power of the old flares. So long as the whole effect doesn't make the tower look like a Vegas showpiece, it really does sound promising.

Executives plan to use these lights to celebrate special events and, of course, to promote tourism.

But here's an even bigger idea – something that will attract the attention of all Canadians and the world's press – and demonstrate Toronto's commitment to ingenuity and the environment.

For generations, Torontonians looking for a quick weather forecast have cast an eye upward to the Canada Life Building on University Ave. The code of flashing white, red, blue and green boxes, and ascending and descending lights is a much-loved urban semaphore, quietly broadcasting both sun and storm.

The Canada Life beacon is Toronto's thermometer – a public good and service from a time before the Weather Channel or Doppler radar.

You can see where I'm going.

One of the leading problems of contemporary politics is that we don't fully understand the collective consequences of our private choices.

Take the environment.

It used to be that we checked the weather. Now because of climate change we know we have a hand in making it. We might be concerned, we might be alarmed but the difficulty is that we don't really know how all those short car trips or extra hours of air conditioning add up.

We're equally ignorant when it comes to how much traffic is on our streets, how much garbage we collectively throw out and how much water or power we use.

Without any feedback or clear signs of progress, it's difficult to change or know what to do.

It's all a bit like driving without a speedometer. Speedometers don't force you to slow down. They just tell you how fast you're going. When it comes to the social or environmental costs of our collective choices, we're a city without a speedometer. We need better ways to gauge ourselves.

A recent trip to Malmo, Sweden, helped make the point. Famous for its extensive bike network, local politicians nevertheless wanted to encourage more people to choose two wheels, not four.

Next to a major bike corridor they installed an electronic sign. Night and day, it counts how many bicycles pass, tracking in a clever bar graph year-on-year progress.

Citizens who think bicycling is good for their city can see the progress being made as bike traffic grows.

The effect is encouraging as it gives city residents real information and something to rally around.

We should do the same with the CN Tower using its new lights to design a system of public information that can display in real time our progress on the collective problems we face.

So imagine this: the CN Tower made to work like a giant United Way thermometer – call it a social barometer – a broadcast beacon newly capable of reaching millions but in a way its original designers never imagined.

A nighttime glance at the tower could tell us whether we were gradually rolling back car usage or whether it was continuing to spike. It could tell us whether power consumption was in hand or we were headed for a brownout. Most importantly, it could illuminate our public imagination – to remind us of our goals and the progress we want to make.

And when we're done with the serious stuff, let's ask the folks at the tower to create a website simple enough for schoolchildren to program their own light shows. What could be more satisfying than watching your own designs dance up the world's tallest tower?