Building ‘Intelligent Futures’ Through Sustainability


By Maryem Sáder – Emzingo.

Former planner of the City of Calgary, in 2008 John Lewis decided to found Intelligent Futures: an ambitious social enterprise that combines urbanism, sustainability and community engagement to create long-lasting solutions for communities and organizations.

Having sustainability as his top priority, John’s approach brings together elements of community engagement, strategic planning, effective communication and capacity-building. With that, he has been recognized as one of Calgary’s “Top 40 Under 40″ (2010). He was also selected as one of the emerging leaders invited to the “Global Environmental Governance Forum” in Glion, Switzerland in 2009.

Based in Calgary, John has a Bachelor Degree in Environmental Studies (Honours) from York University and a Master’s Degree in Environmental Design from the University of Calgary. He’s also a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners; instructor at the University of Calgary; President of LEAD Canada, and a member of LEAD International’s training team. (LEAD stands for Leadership in Environment and Development.)

E- What was the motivation behind Intelligent Future?

J- Intelligent Futures was really born out of a project called imagineCALGARY. This is the city’s long-term urban sustainability plan. While a planner at the City of Calgary, I was part of the project team that developed this plan. Our process engaged over 18,000 citizens – at the time the largest civic visioning engagement to ever happen in the world. It really opened my eyes to the importance of looking holistically at how we build cities, the importance of creatively engaging citizens and the importance of really having fun doing what you’re doing. I actually wrote about this connection to imagineCALGARY recently.

I wanted to take that experience and find new ways of building cities, using an approach that worked intentionally in between traditional professions and focusing on creating meaningful experiences for those that are involved in city-building. I figured the best way to do that was by starting my own firm. Thus, Intelligent Futures.

E- Can you tell us a bit about the history of the organization?

J- Intelligent Futures was just me working in my basement for the first 5 years. Since then, the team has grown into a small family of committed changemakers. In January 2018, we’ll celebrate our 10th anniversary.

Much of our work is built upon a foundation of community engagement. Since 2014, we have engaged over 40,000 people, who have generated over 80.000 ideas in our engagement processes. We love working at the intersection of professions and as a result, we have worked on a crazy array of projects, including: climate change adaptation, community sustainability planning, food security, urban infill, ephemeral and intermittent stream policy, transit strategy, urban agriculture, planning Chinatown, a city museum strategy, social needs assessment, official community plan development, sustainability indicators and graphic and information design. It’s rarely boring at our office!

E- Where do you find inspiration?

J- I’m fortunate to have a number of sources of inspiration. First, my team at Intelligent Futures gives me continual
inspiration. Through their commitment to building a better world, their unique skills and creativity and their sense of humour, they push me to always do better.

My wife is a relentless explorer (she’s been to over 50 countries) and is always looking to learn more about the world by experiencing it. It’s such a wonderful trait to have – especially when you’ve seen as much of the world as she has! This enthusiasm is contagious and exploring new places and environments is a real battery-charger and eye-opener for me. As an example, we have plans to go to Montreal, Hawaii, Iceland, Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, Detroit, Ottawa and Spain this year. And I’m sure we’ll have more plans in the near future.

Finally, my 6 year-old daughter is an ever-increasing source of inspiration. She came home last week with a note that her and a classmate made a note declaring that they were removing the word “manmade” from the English language, because girls can make things too. The next day, she created a poster that she taped to the side of her school letting people know that the new term to use is “personmade” because it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl – you can make things. So amazing!!

E- Are there any achievements you’d particularly like to highlight?

J- Last year, we received two national planning awards and one provincial planning award – all for different projects. I’m proud of this for a few reasons. It is a recognition of the standard of work we hold ourselves to. It highlights the great relationships we have with our clients and other members of our professional teams. It also highlights what an amazing team I have. Intelligent Futures is only 5 people, so to win 3 awards in a single year is pretty amazing.

E- To you, what makes a responsible leader?

J- Simply, someone that is committed to making a positive impact on the world – whether big or small. This means that the substance of their work is intentionally contributing to something bigger than themselves. It also means that they are continually building up the people around them, so that the positive impact can amplify well beyond the level that they can reach alone.

E- Any good advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

J- First, have fun! Running your own business can obviously be stressful and time-consuming, but if you don’t take advantage of the flexibility it affords and do other things with your life, you’re missing out.

Second, only do the work you love and do it as best as you can. You started your own business for a reason. Take advantage of the freedom to choose (or go after) the work you love to do. If you’re doing it anyways, you should do it as well as you can. As John Lasseter of Pixar says: “quality is the best business plan.”

Finally, don’t get complacent. Always keep an eye on the horizon for what new, interesting opportunities are out there. For us at Intelligent Futures, we have found that new areas of work are rewarding in and of themselves, but that the learning that comes from the experience is always transferable to other kinds of work.

John Lewis has been nominated for the February, 2017 Emzingo Leadershift Award.


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