How the City of Lethbridge prepared its Smart Cities Challenge application

RED DEER, Alta. – Public feedback played a central role in Lethbridge’s application for Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge, the city’s IT general manager explained during a recent presentation.

During the 2018 Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA) Prairies conference, Trevor Butler walked attendees through the city’s development process in building the application, which involved developing multiple “challenge statements” – the 50-words-or-less mission statement that Infrastructure Canada wanted municipalities to adopt as their applications’ guiding principle – and refining them into a single statement based on feedback from its approximately 115,000 residents.

“This was not a technology challenge in my mind,” Butler told the audience. “It was about finding out what the challenges were in our community from the perspective of our community members, and how we as partners could help address those challenges in ways that we couldn’t have previously… by harnessing the power of data and connected technology.”

To develop its draft statements, the city decided to focus on four key pillars, Butler said:

  • Openness: Improving the city’s efforts to embrace open governance by developing a formal process to involve residents in decision-making;
  • Integration: Ensuring the right departments and right platforms can be easily accessed to solve the issues at hand;
  • Transferability: That their solutions can be focused on individual communities or adapted across the city as needed; and
  • Collaboration: With the city giving equal consideration to both traditional existing partners and new, non-traditional partners.

The key, Butler emphasized, was that the Lethbridge community needed to lead the way – and that wasn’t their guiding principle simply because the challenge statement was worth 40 per cent of their application criteria.

Decisions, decisions

With these guiding principles in place, the City of Lethbridge still had several decisions to make.

First and foremost was whether they would pursue the Challenge’s $50 million prize, available to municipalities of any size across Canada, or would compete for the smaller, but still substantial, $10 million prize for communities with fewer than 500,000 but more than 30,000 residents. They chose the latter.

“We were a little cautious about what might be happening in the $50 million bucket as we started seeing Toronto, Vancouver, and others showing their intentions,” Butler admitted.

Next, the city had to consider which of six categories Infrastructure Canada had listed Lethbridge wanted its application to fall under:

  • Helping residents feel safe and secure;
  • Earn a good living;
  • Move around their community;
  • Enjoy a healthy environment;
  • Be empowered and included in society; and
  • Live an active and healthy life.

Under the Challenge’s rules, the application could utilize up to two categories.

At this stage, the City of Lethbridge engaged in some executive decision-making. According to Butler, the city decided that much of its prior research for projects such as the Intelligent Community Initiative – which was being developed in partnership with the New York City-based non-profit Intelligent Community Forum – could apply to the Smart Cities Challenge as well.

Development of the Intelligent Community Initiative, for example, had already included the creation of what city officials referred to as an “intelligent community integral strategy roadmap,” which had been developed in collaboration with 22 community leaders, 4000 face to face conversations, and nearly 50,000 digital media impressions.

“As we scoured through and analyzed [the Intelligent Community Initiative] document, we saw that there were a number of things that align very very well with what the Smart Cities Challenge was trying to produce,” Butler explained. “So we wanted to leverage that.”

Another project was 100K+ Lethbridge, developed in anticipation of the community reaching 100,000 residents and the source of 1100 completed surveys on how its municipal services could prepare.

A three-phased approach

To develop its statement proper, however, the City of Lethbridge pursued what Butler called a “three-phased” approach.

Step one, he said, was research and engagement, which included drawing on both existing studies and fresh research to analyze the city’s economic base; its strengths; its weaknesses; and communities that use support.

Next, the city organized what it called the “Big Thinker” session, which included both a pre-survey and meetings with 34 leaders across our community.

“After we went through that group, we went back online and found that our community had a few things to say about [our work],” Butler said. “We were hoping to come up with three challenge statements. I think we came up with 97… So we had a bit of work to do.”

Ultimately, city officials hired outside consultants to help them analyze and connect both their new and existing research to the four pillars of openness, integration, transferability, and collaboration. The result – statements for three of Infrastructure Canada’s six proposed categories:

  • Enjoying a healthy environment: “By 2030, Lethbridge will be the first Canadian city to achieve population-wide carbon neutrality, with net greenhouse gas emissions amounting to zero, and organizations, businesses and individuals taking collective action to remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they put in.”
  • Being included in society: “Lethbridge will eradicate personal and professional isolation, exemplify inclusiveness, and increase overall satisfaction with socially-oriented city programs and services to 98 per cent by 2030, by ensuring all residents have equitable access to high-quality social, community, career and health resources, services and assemblies.”
  • Earning a good living: “Through development of an Innovation District, Lethbridge will double its post-secondary graduate retention rates and will become the city of choice for businesses that think and operate differently by 2025.”

When the statements were sent out to the community for a vote, these were the results:

Courtesy City of Lethbridge.

“There was a lot of interest in focusing on earning a good living, and the environment was very, very close behind, so we wanted to wrap those two together,” Butler said.

After a final stage of development, the challenge statement submitted by the city was this:

“Through development of an Innovation District, Lethbridge will double its post-secondary graduate retention rates and will become the city of choice for businesses that think and operate differently by 2025.”

That statement included three foundational elements of particular importance to the city, Butler said:

  • Investing in enough digital infrastructure to support a connected city;
  • Securing startup or innovation funding to help the city’s postsecondary graduates start their own businesses; and
  • Building a digital platform to connect the various resources available.

“Our big idea was… specifically focusing on an area of our community that was in decline, our warehouse district, by developing it into a business education and social environment for entrepreneurs,” Butler said.

The city’s application, which you can read here, was ultimately submitted to, and accepted by, Infrastructure Canada in time for the April 24 deadline.

Officials are now waiting to find out if they made the Challenge’s short list, which would result in a $250,000 grant to help them further develop their proposal.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former IT World Canada associate editor turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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