It has been stated time and time again, but it deserves repeating: From a technology perspective, the impact of Covid-19 has had a lasting impact on how municipalities operate and how they function.
The change in consumer behavior since the pandemic, organizers of the recent Technicity GTA 2023 conference pointed out, has had a huge impact on city centre areas. So much so that many are currently undergoing major digital transformations in order to attract the businesses and citizens required to keep them both vibrant and competitive in the short, medium, and long term.
Municipalities, they contend, must keep innovation and investment moving forward, and how that needs to happen formed the basis of a panel moderated by Connie McCutcheon, president of the Canadian chapter of the Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA Canada).
She was joined by Grant Coffey, interim director of strategy and communications with the Toronto Seniors Housing Corp. and Alice Xu, director of the City of Toronto’s Connect TO, a program designed to increase digital equity for those less fortunate.
McCutcheon’s opening question revolved around how cities should cooperate to achieve ambitious goals that promote interoperability with citizens as their focus.
“This is a really big issue for cities in general,” said Coffey. “When I look at the types of things that we need to work together on, it’s about understanding that we have some common challenges and opportunities as cities.”
Taken in isolation, the challenges may seem both difficult and overwhelming, he said, which is why it is important to reach out to peers in other municipalities, “have conversations and start to look for partners.”
Xu described getting together with city staff from elsewhere as a “really good form of therapy,” by virtue of the fact you can see where things went well or where they had difficulty with a certain project, and learn from it. At the end of the day, she said, it is the citizen that will benefit from improved public services.
The key to a solid digital strategy, both panelists maintained, is to having foundational elements in place such as the city of Toronto’s Digital Infrastructure Strategic Framework, which provides “base principles for ensuring equity and diversity within any technology implementation.”
Coffey termed it a “significant step forward” for the municipality “in the context of working with its citizens, workings with local business and working with technology partners.
As for the latter, all three speakers agreed that technology must be viewed as an enabler of providing new and innovative initiatives, which certainly happened during the pandemic at the Toronto Senior Housing Corp.
The agency currently houses just under 15,000 tenants aged 59 years and up, in 83 buildings across the municipality. With all of them in lockdown, programs were put in place, said Coffey, that allowed them to be taught how best to be digitally connected with their families, their friends, medical practitioners, or city personnel involved with senior housing initiatives.
“We’ve learned a lot over the past few years, and what we have learned is that there is indeed a digital divide in Toronto,” said Xu.
“We are one of the best connected cities in Canada, for sure, and so it begs the question, what is driving this divide? When it comes down to it, income and poverty is a big factor.”
The key, she added, is to ensure that, whether talking about a municipal park or a new subsidized apartment unit, “we embed a digital infrastructure in at the front end, rather than as an afterthought.”
Asked for examples of digital innovation in action, Xu spoke highly of the 311 app, which is available on the App Store or on Google Play.
Offering assistance in 180+ languages, according to the city of Toronto, “it provides residents, businesses and visitors, easy access to non-emergency city services, programs, and information 24/7 from your mobile device.
“This mobile app is part of 311 Toronto’s vision to transform and modernize the way you connect with the City of Toronto. You will be able to access all 311 Toronto’s services through the app and create over 600 service requests.”
Asked by McCutcheon about the city’s plans to stay competitive, Xu said that with the strategic framework in place, “we have a process in which the public can continue to give us input on what kind of digital city they want to see us build. That is what we think is going to set us apart.”