Impact of Ideas TEDx

How the mayor of Calgary decided to run for office. Hint: it all started with a TEDx Talk

Naheed-Nenshi

When Naheed Nenshi spoke at TEDxCalgary, he was a university professor. Now, he’s the mayor of Calgary.

In May of 2010, just a month after giving a TEDx talk, Nenshi launched a successful campaign for mayor—one dubbed the “purple revolution” because of his aim to bring together conservative red and liberal blue. He won the election by a commanding lead, becoming Canada’s first Muslim mayor in the process. In 2013, the former consultant and media commentator—whose academic research focused on civic engagement—ran for re-election. This time, he captured 74% of the vote with the Toronto Star describing him as “wildly popular.”

Nenshi traces his decision to run for office back to being asked to give a TEDx talk.

“I was doing research on neighborhoods in Calgary and how they were becoming more segregated—by income, by age and by ethnicity,” he says. “I thought that the TED environment would be a great way to present some of my research, visually.“

Hans Rosling: The best stats you've ever seen Hans Rosling: The best stats you've ever seen Nenshi was inspired by the talks of Hans Rosling. “He did a great talk in 2006 which used visualizations to talk about poverty and health and development in a way I’d never seen before,” says Nenshi. “I thought, ‘Can I do a mini-version of that?’”

Nenshi worked hard to create maps that illuminated the problems that arise with increasingly segregated neighborhoods. He also crafted a powerful, conversational talk that underlined the idea.

It worked—his talk was a hit TEDxCalgary, which was held in late April of 2010. “The analytic lens he put on our city was fresh, new and hadn’t been heard,” remembers curator Rahim Sajan. “People surrounded him during the breaks.”

But the talk really began to take off when it was posted on YouTube.

“It became quite the phenomenon online. The filming was done from the most unflattering angle possible, so I try not to look at it myself—but it was huge,” says Nenshi. “To this day, I still see people tweet it, and say, ‘Before he was mayor, he had some interesting things to say.’”

About three months before TEDxCalgary, the then-mayor of the city had announced that he wasn’t seeking re-election. Nenshi had started talking to assorted community leaders, trying to convince them to run for office. “I kept striking out,” he says.

However, after his TEDx talk went online, the tone of these conversations changed. “People would say, ‘Politics isn’t for me, but why don’t you do it? I saw the TEDx video. You clearly have a lot of good ideas about the development of cities,’” he remembers. “I kept saying, ‘No, no, no. I’m a professor, I’m a consultant.’ I thought of myself as the ideas guy—the person who would try to influence the people in office—not as the guy actually shaking the hands and kissing the babies.”

Still, Nenshi started toying with the idea of running for mayor himself. And in late May, about a month after his TEDx experience, he decided to make his campaign official. However, the team of advisors he’d assembled to consider the run thought he needed an alternative strategy to the traditional press conference.

“We didn’t have enough time to put together a typical campaign rally, with balloons and streamers and hundreds of people in a room,” says Nenshi. “So on a Thursday morning at 9 a.m., I sent out a Twitter and a Facebook message saying, ‘I’m running.’ Then, for the entire day, we gave a 45-minute exclusive, one-on-one interview to any media who would talk to me.”

This strategy meant that instead of a single story about his campaign, each reporter focused coverage in a different direction. Nenshi felt that this gave a rounder, more realistic introduction to him as a potential mayor.

Nenshi was surprised by how many of the people he met through TEDxCalgary jumped in to help with his campaign. Sajan became one of his key volunteers, and co-organizer Jonathan Perkins became Nenshi’s fundraising chair. “Many, many, many people who were in the theater that day came out to assist, whether it was knocking on doors, or delivering leaflets, or helping us think through policy,” says Nenshi.

Attendee Chris Hsiung (who’d later become TEDxCalgary’s creative director) teamed up with singer Amy Thiessen, who’d performed at the event that year, to create a music video for Nenshi’s campaign. Meanwhile, one of the guys who filmed the TEDxCalgary talk, Gordon McDowell, took on the role of documentarian.

“At one of my campaign launch events, a fellow showed up with a camcorder in his hand, and a couple of little Flip Cams and T-bolt clamps that you would get at the hardware store. He approached the volunteer on duty and said, ‘Can I film the candidate’s speech?’” remembers Nenshi. “I didn’t know who this guy was, so I asked him, ‘Who are you?’ He said, ‘I filmed you at TEDx. I was so inspired by what you said that I decided to get more involved. So I’m filming different candidates.’”

These recordings helped Nenshi’s campaign get traction online—vital, since there were 19 candidates in the mayoral race.

“At the end of the campaign, it became clear that there were only three candidates who could win. The public was clamoring for a debate between us, but the other two candidates kept refusing to do a three-way debate,” says Nenshi. “So Gordon took all his video of all the 34 debates we’d had already, and he spliced the three of us into a YouTube video. Citizens could watch, so they could compare and contrast. He created a virtual debate.”

For Nenshi, election night was surreal. While he’d analyzed many of them over the years, he’d never been personally involved.

“Our campaign headquarters was too small for the election-night party, so we booked a bar,” says Nenshi. “When you’re a candidate, you have an army of scrutineers at the polling stations and the moment that the polls are counted, they phone in with results. The candidate usually knows what’s going on before anyone else. However, I was at this hot, sweaty bar saying thank you to the volunteers. I was surrounded by people. I didn’t have any access to the scrutineer numbers.”

The bar was loud, and Nenshi couldn’t hear what was being said on the television screens overhead. “I see my campaign manager being interviewed at campaign headquarters, looking awfully happy for the fact that I was trailing badly in the early results. Then I see my sister looking very emotional,” he recalls. “I had been a pundit before and sat on lots of election-night panels, so kind of knew how to read things. One poll came in, and it showed the results changing significantly. I was still in third place, but very close. I realized that was the first of the polls from that actual day that had been counted—everything up to that moment had been advance polls.”

He had a strong intuition about what was about to happen. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. The next data release is going to show me in the lead. I’m going to win. And I’ve got about three minutes to figure out what I’m going to say, because this bar is going to collectively lose its mind.’”

Nenshi turned to a friend, and mouthed to him the words: I think I won. Nenshi remembers, “He points at his phone, and says, ‘I know! They’ve been sending me the numbers!’ They sent them to him, but not to me.”

As expected, the next update had Nenshi in the lead. He stayed there until the election was called.

A look at the Calgary skyline. Photo: iStockphoto

A look at the Calgary skyline. Photo: iStockphoto

Sajan remembers the excitement of that night well. “I was ecstatic—over the moon,” he says. “I had never been involved in politics before, other then in student government, and what an introduction to politics it was! His election was a watershed moment for our city and I remember walking on cloud nine. As a TEDx organizer, I felt incredibly good that our work had been a small force in his election.”

Nenshi says that the through-line of his campaign was getting everyday people involved—and that he’s pulled that idea into his mayorship.

“Politicians talk to citizens in sound bites, but citizens are actually very keen on engaging more deeply. They want politics in full sentences,” says Nenshi. “All the stuff I talked about [in the campaign]—about how we could do politics in a different way, about talking to people like functional members of the conversation, about taking bold steps that let people into the decision-making process—in the almost three-and-a-half years since I’ve been mayor, people have responded to that.”

Another core part of his mayorship has been rolling back the segregation of Calgary’s neighborhoods—the theme of his TEDx talk. “We want to continue to develop mixed communities. That means that new suburban neighborhoods are being built to accommodate people at different life-stages—at different levels of pricing,” he says. “And our work in redeveloping existing neighborhoods is aimed at redevelopment without gentrification, to make sure that the neighborhoods remain welcoming to people from a variety of backgrounds.”

Calgary’s city government is enormous—according to Nenshi, because of its uni-city structure, it is actually the 10th largest city government in North America. As mayor, Nenshi leads 17,000 employees.

“I learned very early on that when we started talking about openness and cutting red tape and allowing people to do their jobs with the focus on citizens, the front-line employees totally got it,” he says. “It was almost like the weight had been lifted off their shoulders.”

Sanjan, for one, has been very impressed watching Nenshi lead the city. “From his push toward a more walkable city to zoning changes that allow for more holistic neighborhoods, he has stayed true to the spirit and tone of his talk,” says Sajan.

That said, Sajan still apologizes to Nenshi for the quality of his talk video. “I know the sound was not very good,” he says, “We know what we’re doing much better now.”