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August 18, 2015

Rebooting the public square: digital innovation for urban and rural municipalities

How will new waves of technological change like robotics and artificial intelligence affect the employment landscape in rural and urban communities across Ontario? How are leading organizations and networks harnessing digital technologies to further the public good ? And, what can municipal leaders do to ensure their jurisdictions are not left behind by the accelerating pace of technological change?

Yesterday I had the privilege of reflecting on these vital themes during my opening keynote for the annual gathering of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario. My slides are available on slideshare and I encourage you to share them widely.

My audience for the keynote was a diverse group of over 1,500 elected officials and public servants hailing from virtually all corners of Ontario. The challenge was to craft a message about the implications of technological change that would not only resonate with public officials who represent large, diverse cities such as Ottawa and Toronto, but also with the leaders of smaller northern communities like Red Lake and Sioux Lookout. In my experience, technologists often speak eagerly to the opportunities and needs of urban centres, but pay lip service to the challenges rural communities face in adapting to technological change.

It’s true that urban and rural communities experience technological change differently, with big cities often feeling the intensity of change more acutely, and big cities having a greater advantage in possessing the talent and the resources to respond appropriately. But my message to rural and urban leaders was the same: no municipal government anywhere can afford to ignore the opportunities — or the disruption — that technology presents. Whether urban or rural, digital offers new ways to deliver higher quality services more efficiently, to collaborate with citizens and stakeholders to achieve shared goals, and to facilitate job creation and economic opportunity at a time when the conditions for economic success are changing rapidly for Ontario.

The keynote covered a lot of ground — too much to cover in one post — including many opportunities for municipal innovation. These examples included:

Of course, most attendees wanted to know how their municipalities should modernize their approach to digital technologies and seize some of the opportunities illustrated in the examples above. In my closing remarks, I emphasized seven recommendations, which are summarized below:

  1. Prioritize digital innovation with an executive mandate.
  2. Invest in digital talent and create inter-disciplinary teams fusing policy, delivery and technology.
  3. Don’t take the past as a template for the future. Grant the flexibility to rethink/alter current state and experiment.
  4. Focus first on “minimum viable products” not detailed specifications and seek early and frequent input from live customers.
  5. Develop agile sourcing capabilities for digital innovation through open data, crowdsourcing and labs for co-innovation.
  6. Work across government to streamline processes and remove barriers by making rules conform to modern development practices (rather than force development practices to conform to existing rules!).
  7. Collect and analyze performance data and maintain a commitment to continuous innovation & improvement over time.
    Feel free to get in touch with us at the DEEP Centre if you’d like to discuss further.

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