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OPINION: The internet is real, it's happening and city council needs to accept that

This week's Market Squared looks at why city council is so gun shy about digital services, and why they need to be more future ready, which is a term I totally just made up
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The vast majority of this month’s committee of the whole meeting agenda dealt with money stuff, which I hate. I don’t have a head for the money stuff, and it’s hard to construct a partisan debate around cold hard numbers.

Also, City of Guelph financials are not what you’d call accessible to the layman, or for that matter anyone that doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree in thermonuclear astro-accounting, or whatever.

So let’s talk about what the city is doing with that money, and one of the items that got a bit more financial juice at Monday’s meeting was $500,000 reallocated to service rationalization initiatives, especially the digitization of the development application process. A provincial grant has gotten the city most of the way there, but staff needed a top up to finish the job.

This was a tough sell for some members of council, which shouldn’t be surprising because it was one of the few areas that council didn’t approve new funding for last December. Of course, selling Guelph city council on anything involving digital services is a tough row to hoe because by my count at least one quarter of our elected officials are dyed in the wool Luddites.

Hey, I get it, the internet has been, and likely will be again, responsible for some pretty bad stuff. The promises in the 90s of the World Wide Web as the great digital utopia, a positive unifying force for humanity, turned out to be a bag of magic beans that grew into a giant bean stock of hate, resentment, and alternative realities.

Having said that, if you think digital services is anything other than a growth industry, you’re mistaken. You can do almost every other type of business on the internet, so when you go to do business with the City of Guelph and hit a digital wall, it feels like our city hall is stuck in the past, and if you’re stuck in the past, you’re not future ready.

Hey, where have I heard that term before?

Speaking from personal experience, I know that having a reloadable transit card has made my life considerably more adaptable. No more going out of my way to get a new pass every month or forcing myself to remember the calendar’s changing. If it’s 12:01 a.m. on the first day of the month, and I suddenly remember I need a new bus pass, I can just hop online and get a new pass with just a few clicks.

The digital bus pass is one of the few positive digital experiences I’ve had with the city’s internet facing frontage because accessing the City of Guelph website to find even the most basic information is a frequently terrible experience. Looking on the city’s website for one specific piece of information can be exasperating unless you know exactly where to find it or have previously bookmarked the page.

Now, I don’t necessarily buy the party line about how we’ll improve housing starts by accelerating the development paperwork, but a modern city needs to embrace the way people live and work today and will likely live and work tomorrow. Why would you want to line up at the customer service counter at city hall if you could in any way avoid it, especially with limiting 9 to 5 business hours?

So why do some members of city council have such a hard time seeing that? The limits of council thinking when the credit card is out is often confusing, remember the 2021 budget process when there was a motion to cut facility rentals by 25 per cent for youth non-profit rec groups? Council didn’t want to set future expectations for that even while it was making similar moves for other Guelph groups.

We need city council to embrace the digital frontier because that’s where the future is going. Despite the challenges presented by the internet, and they are substantial, it is a habit we’ve gotten used to. An entire generation of young people have now grown up with the internet, and it’s part of their lives, and we olds need to start more openly embracing that.

And to bring this issue into the election discourse, which started this week with the opening of nominations for mayor and council, consider our current mayor’s skill and ability with social media.

I’m often asked if there’s someone in Guelph who can give Cam Guthrie a run for his money in 2022, and I’ll tell you what I tell them, any challenger’s Twitter game needs to be running at 100 per cent if they have a shot. A lot Cam’s appeal is tied to his folksy music-loving, dad joke-making, garage sale bargain hunting image, which is constantly displayed and curated very well on his social media.

In other words, you have to be this cool/uncool to have a shot.

So yes, the internet is real, it’s happening, and the electorate is changing all the time to reflect a bigger and bigger constituency that’s cool with that fact. A city that doesn’t understand that, and act on it, is a city that’s going to get left behind, and don’t we already have enough problems to overcome?