Most mayors complete their time in office without ever having to contend with a state of emergency. Naheed Nenshi has seen three during his more than 10 years as Mayor of Calgary: One when floods ravaged the city in the spring of 2013 and two during COVID-19. No stranger to calamities, he understands the profound importance of technology when managing a crisis.
Speaking at Technicity West, a digital conference that brought together some of the brightest technology leaders in Western Canada on February 9, 2021, Mayor Nenshi reminded his audience just how quickly COVID-19 overturned our world.
“When I was doing year-end interviews in 2019, they were really about a fragile economic recovery in an unclear global market, yet they were ultimately very, very optimistic.” he said. “Certainly, none of us expected what happened in 2020.”
Nenshi estimates that even before COVID-19, legacy industries in Calgary were looking to spend upwards of $18 billion dollars in the next few years on digitization. Government, he says, was in a similar position. COVID-19 highlighted the existing need, but it also added unique challenges. “We had to find new ways of digitization and new ways of managing the world in which we found ourselves and it hasn’t been easy for everyone,” he adds.
The extent of Calgary’s pivot is evident in Nenshi’s itinerary for the days following his return from a trade mission in India at the end of February 2020. “When I did my first press conference from our emergency operations centre, I realized that the technology we used for live broadcasts was a little bit outdated,” he remembers. “We weren’t sure how we were going to do virtual press conferences, but we got that up and running very quickly.”
Everyone knows how to use Microsoft Teams now
“Quickly” is also the best word to describe the transition of about 8,000 city employees to work from home and a sudden immersion in Microsoft Teams, something many of them had never heard of before. But those are internal changes, and according to Nenshi, what’s really important is how technology improved the citizen experience.
“Calgary has been digitizing services for many years and was the first city in Canada to take the entire process for business permitting online,” he said. “COVID made us accelerate a lot of that.”
One major goal is providing supports for vulnerable Calgarians, a commitment that saw the city establish hubs for community mental health and addiction support in every library. “The idea there, starting with our downtown library, is that if you’re having a mental health crisis, and you are near a library, go there and they’ll have access to the technology needed to help you,” said Nenshi.
Another significant step was the adoption of technology for Calgary Transit, which until the pandemic was lagging behind when it came to digital transformation. Launched in July 2020, an app called My Fare now allows riders to buy passes and tickets using their phones. Not only does this minimize physical contact during the pandemic, but it also promotes safety by eliminating the need to go into a store to buy a ticket.
Nenshi is also enthusiastic about ParkPlus, an app that helps manage parking and allows the city to create wavers for those parking in order to make curbside pickups of groceries and other essential goods – a COVID-19 support that would not have been possible without the app.
“Sometimes it’s easy for those of us who get excited about technology to think about technology for the sake of technology,” said Mayor Nenshi, “but what makes it work well here in the context of government, is how we can use technology to make people’s lives better.”