A pivotal session at last week’s Technicity GTA conference explored the role technology plays when it comes to planning, maintaining and growing great cities. Moderated by David Stoehr, enterprise account executive with Google Cloud Canada, the bulk of the discussion revolved around the many challenges that exist in getting to the point where greatness is ultimately created.
City modernization and urbanization, event organizers stated in the conference guide, “result primarily from technological advancements. The importance to improve technological infrastructure with municipalities owning or managing 60 per cent of city infrastructure, helps to attract higher human capital needed to support systems for future development.”
It is a noble goal, but as panelists Grant Cowan, manager of IT for the Town of Innisfil, Cyrus Tehrani, chief digital officer and director of innovation with the City of Hamilton and Marco Palermo, deputy chief technology officer (CTO) of technology standardization delivery with the City of Toronto, not an easy one to achieve.
“The big problem we face is just the sheer size of the applications and solutions that have to be implemented and how to deliver them in a really effective way,” said Palermo.
Cowan added that it comes down to delivering services that are easy and seamless to use. Creating a positive customer experience, he said, is an important component.
That customer experience cannot simply be based on delivering a positive digital experience, for as Stoehr pointed out, a “digital divide” exists in all municipalities and it is an issue that must be addressed.
It is also a complicated matter, said Tehrani, because of a number of factors. Solving the issue involves far more than providing Wi-Fi connectivity in a bus station or a municipal park. Having the connectivity is one thing, but for those “marginalized within our community, will they have access to a device and the skills to use that device?”
“You want to ensure that your services are offered and available for everybody,” said Palermo, adding that a key piece of legislation is the city’s Digital Infrastructure Strategic Framework, which provides “base principles for ensuring equity and diversity within any technology implementation.”
The framework notes that the “benefits of digitization have not been equally distributed and particular communities continue to experience disproportionate barriers to access and participation which has led to a digital divide.
“Digital equity requires an understanding of barriers (such as algorithmic biases) facing Indigenous, Black and equity-deserving groups, including those with accessibility needs, as well as strategies to ensure that those groups are able to trust, participate and fully leverage the benefits of online digital services and technology.”
The fostering of the so-called great city can not be done alone, but jointly, with the private sector and post-secondary institutions. To that end, panelists were asked about the importance of working with other sectors.
“When it comes to the innovation ecosystem, it’s about finding those opportunities that work, that you can maybe sometimes try things, either on a smaller scale pilot, or get your feet wet without exposing or taking on a huge chunk of risk,” said Tehrani.
Palermo added that “we have engaged with different business partners, vendors and universities to advance a number of pilots.”
Stoehr then asked a key question: How do you drive change in such a risk-averse environment?
While Cowan replied by saying the key lies in creating a solid business case that mitigates any risks, and if they arise, are manageable, Palermo said it comes down to one word – deliver.
“I have been with the city for 19 years, and I am well versed in how it operates. But I can tell you this: deliver, just deliver good results and demonstrate to the leadership that sometimes, you must rip the band aid off.”
In other words, act quickly, which is something, he said, happened during the pandemic. ““What better time did we all have in the municipal space, certainly in IT, to finally rip that band aid off and say, ‘we need stuff urgently, we need to deliver to our residents, because our doors aren’t open at the moment, and so we’re going to show you what we’re really capable of.’
“And that’s exactly what we did at the city. And I can tell you, just within my team alone, we delivered over 140 solutions within a year and a half. The pandemic helped us really do that.”
Such digitization can be viewed as a success, said Stoehr, but he then asked the panel, on the flip side of that, what are the business risks of a municipality not modernizing?
The implications, from an economic perspective, will be dire, said Cowan. “If you are not modernizing at some point, that is going to start affecting your economic development as well. Businesses are going to (locate) elsewhere because they have these modern tools and services available.”
Palermo, meanwhile, said, “the real business risk of not modernizing is being rendered useless, and that is a scary thought, but I don’t think we would ever get there. Certainly within our city, and I could easily say the same for Hamilton, Innisfil and every other municipality across Canada, we’re really trying to push that envelope.”