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Accelerating solutions to city problems

Guelph launches Civic Solutions Accelerator
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The concept is a new one and not easy to explain. But Guelph City Hall and a host of local players in the civic technology field are fired up about the City of Guelph’s Civic Solutions Accelerator project.

Civic technology in broad terms is anything that utilizes 21st century technology and concepts to make municipal government function more efficiently and engage citizens more thoroughly.  More effective development, improved citizen communications, more effective government infrastructure are among the goals.

The city has some problems and those problems need solutions. How can water use be better monitored to avoid things like costly, undetected leaks? What can be done to optimize parking resources in the downtown for the betterment of downtown vibrancy and economy? And how can the city best disseminate statutory notices to ensure the broadest communication and input on those plans?

These three challenges are the target of the Civic Solutions Accelerator project. The approach to solving them is brand new, having only been tried in a small number of municipalities in North America and Europe.

The city is inviting those with strong ideas and approaches – whether entrepreneurs, startups, students or companies both within and outside the city - to take a crack at solving the problems. The project launched on Monday. To learn how to compete in it visit http://open.guelph.ca/accelerator/.

The city will open up a request for proposal process to enlist one solution-finder for each problem. But unlike a customary RFP process this one won’t involve the city having a specific set of criteria for the project.

Instead, successful applicants, working along with city insiders, will have access to the city’s information, data and challenges related to the problem. It will be up to them to find an innovative solution.

The launch at city hall on Monday included addresses by Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie, the city’s new chief administrative officer Derrick Thomson, allow with a panel of experts that included Kithio Mwanzia, president of the Guelph Chamber of Commerce, Kevin Tuer of Canada’s Open Data Exchange, and Kirk Roberts, a municipal software expert and a board member of Innovation Guelph.

Thomson called the accelerator a way of “tackling old problems in a new way.” He said it gives “outside innovators” unprecedented access to city data and processes, and is a more flexible approach on the path to open government.

Guthrie is excited by the plan, saying it has the potential to set the city up as a kind of research and development lab for startups – the R&D being finding solutions to city problems. It brings a “fresh set of eyes and solutions” to those problems. The solutions found could potentially generate business opportunities with other municipal governments at home and abroad.

“When most people think of municipal government the word innovation doesn’t always come to mind,” Guthrie said, adding that municipalities are established institutions that can be inflexible in their processes. He sees the Civic Solutions Accelerator process as a way of breaking out of those constraints.

A series of three interview-format videos were shown at the launch, each featuring city officials talking about one of the three city problems.

The city uses old, outmoded technology to monitor its complex water system. When costly leaks occur they are often not discovered soon enough. The city needs to identify opportunities for conservation and more efficient monitoring.

The parking problem downtown is an impediment to economic development. The question is, how to accommodate a 20th century mode of transportation, the car, into a 21st century community. How are investments in parking to be made, and what types of advanced technologies can be deployed to optimize parking resources?

In a changing media landscape, what can the city do to ensure its statutory notices are noticed? To ensure there is ample public awareness and input on things like planning proposals, what new approaches are needed?

Kevin Tuer said there is a general attitude that opening city data up, particularly when doing so could have commercial repercussions, puts a municipality in a risk situation. But there is a far more mutually beneficial way to look at it.

“If you open up the data and put it in the hands of those who create solutions, they just may be able to create solutions for you,” he said.

Mwanzia said access to data affords opportunities to figure out ways to use that information to find solutions. And those solutions many apply to other municipalities who are willing to pay for them. Business expansion in Guelph would be one possible outcome.

Andy Best, Guelph’s open government manager, said the RFP process is now open for the next three weeks. By September the successful applicants on each of the three challenges will be embedded for three months in the relevant city departments, working along side city staff in an open process to find solutions.

He said a “demonstration day” is tentatively planned for December to make public some of the insights of the process.

Best said the City of San Francisco pioneered the process in 2014. Montreal and Amsterdam are also engaged in similar processes.

Guelph’s Civic Solutions Accelerator is governed by the city’s procurement guidelines, with applicants chosen on the basis of their ability to solve the challenge and create a commercial enterprise.

The project is a partnership with Innovation Guelph, Canada’s Open Data Exchange, Guelph Chamber of Commerce, and the University of Guelph’s CBaSE.



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Rob O'Flanagan

About the Author: Rob O'Flanagan

Rob O’Flanagan has been a newspaper reporter, photojournalist and columnist for over twenty years. He has won numerous Ontario Newspaper Awards and a National Newspaper Award.
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