During a talk at Elevate Toronto, the City of Toronto announced the official launch of its Civic Innovation Office with Paula Kwan as its director.
The city first announced its intention to launch the Office in March 2017, after being the first Canadian city to receive a $500,000 multi-year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which provides municipalities with funding to build out innovation teams.
The Civic Innovation Office is currently made up of Kwan, former head of global expansion at Pivotal Labs and We Are Wearables co-organizer; Jay Vidyarthi, Muse’s former head of UX Design; and Todd Orvitz, the city’s former director of corporate policy.
“The people of Toronto want their city to be responsive to the very real needs, questions
and challenges they face every day,” said Toronto mayor John Tory. “I look forward to the Civic
Innovation Office working with Bloomberg Philanthropies to introduce new tools, technologies, and approaches to benefit our city and its residents.”
The goal is to build a “responsive government,” and find external teams that will help the city tackle city problems. While the Office is open to solutions from qualified teams in any sector, the tech community is expected to play a large role.
“The ecosystem and mindset of the startup or tech company is ‘think big and act small.’ So thinking big, there’s a wealth of talent and ideas and thought leadership in the tech community that we haven’t even explored yet,” said Kwan. “In order to marry those big ideas with this internal opportunity to do things differently, that is a perfect match and a perfect opportunity for all of us to co-create a solution together.”
“In terms of delivering service, tech can deliver a lot of insights.”
Teams will be given a challenge every year and work with city staff to identify solutions based on research; after the team put out an open call to city staff on what problems they should consider, they decided that this year’s challenge would be tackling issues related to 311.
However, a common pattern with all city challenges identified was the need for the public to have better access to services, a need for city services to be delivered according to resident need, and a need to use and identify data.
“Part of the ambition for the office is to really bring about culture change within City Hall to empower [people]. There’s so many incredible people inside city hall that want to innovate and want to try new things, so this is really about them,” said Siri Agrell, director of strategic initiatives at City Hall.
The problem, Agrell said, is that city governments haven’t been able to keep up with new public expectations driven by technology. “They have much information is at their fingertips,” said Agrell. “So the expectations of the public is, ‘I should be able to access all main points of contact through technology, I should be able to access data, I should be able to see patterns and pull from the information the city has more readily,” said Agrell.
“Technology isn’t the only solution and won’t be the only focus for the Office at all. We will be looking at policy interventions and different ways of doing business, but in terms of delivering service, tech can deliver a lot of insights.”
The Office also plans to shift the way the city performs procurements; rather than do an RFP that outlines a highly-specific solution to a city problem — which can leave out earlier-stage companies — the city will instead begin presenting problems and being open to different types of solutions.
Kwan said that her past experience as a co-organizer of We Are Wearables Toronto (BetaKit is a WWTO media partner) exposed her to the potential of the city. “It’s allowed me to be exposed to some deep thought leaders, and a lot of people coming out of Toronto, and where the strength of Toronto tech is coming from. We are pushing boundaries on what is being developed,” she said.