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[Listen] Digital transformation and the path to stronger, safer, and more efficient cities

[Listen] Digital transformation and the path to stronger, safer, and more efficient cities

4 Minute Read

Digital Services partner Wendy Gnenz visited Municipal World’s MW Presents Podcast to discuss how technology is shaping the present and future of Canadian municipalities.

Technology is revolutionizing how local governments manage costs, deliver services, and make life easier for residents and service providers. MNP’s Wendy Gnenz was recently featured on an episode of the MW Presents Podcast to discuss some of the digital transformation trends and challenges ahead.

Wendy touches on a wide range of topics, including the impacts of COVID-19, the role of data in lowering user fees, reducing crime, and optimizing the use of bike lanes — and how leaders can position cities to innovate and adapt through a “think yes” mindset.   

Listen to the conversation or read the transcript below.

Listen to the podcast

This podcast is shared for the purposes of information only. The discussion does not reflect a direct or implied endorsement of Municipal World or its members.

Episode transcript

Note, the following conversation has been edited for the purposes of clarity and conciseness.

SM:   So, Wendy, how has the pandemic affected municipal plans to adopt technologies?

WG: That’s a very good question. Many organizations have had to adjust their digital transformation practices as a result of the pandemic. Employees have had to learn how to work remotely. Citizens have had to learn how to get services from municipalities through new means. And administration has had to look at ways to deliver services to those citizens in different ways as well.

We’ve also seen a number of pressures put on municipalities financially with respect to a reduction in user fees for select services provided by municipalities such as recreational facilities and transit.

SM:  What are citizens expecting from their local governments regarding the use of digital tools and platforms?

WG: The focus now is very much citizen centric. What that means is citizens expect municipalities to serve the people who live, work, and play in those communities. They’re looking for administration to actively listen to the community and consistently examine their decisions and the options for how services can be delivered.

The citizen wants to be seen as central to how services are delivered and how goods are provided. They want city employees to always look at the opportunity to improve their lives and they want to feel confident that municipalities are focused on the right things.

SM: What are some of the skills that local governments need to acquire or build in order to have success in the digital world?

WG: One of the biggest ones is innovation. Organizations learn and grow through innovation — and including the citizen in that process is critical. As is having senior leaders and employees involved in creating and fostering new approaches to using technology.

Being agile in your thinking — allowing for different ways of doing business, different models of business, different partners, etc.

It’s also critical that partnerships factor into the question of ‘how are we going to move forward as a municipality?’ Municipalities can no longer do all functions internally. Unique partnerships are emerging to meet citizen expectations and use digital technologies in new ways.

The ability to be agile in thinking is critical. The phrase that I like to use is ‘think yes.’ Look for new ways to solve old problems, new ways to solve new problems. Look at emerging technologies and how the municipality can use them in a unique way to meet the needs of citizens.

SM: That’s very interesting, Wendy. So, given your experience with these strategies, do you have any lessons learned that you can share with us from transformation programs with other organizations?

WG: One of the biggest ones is that leadership should be invested in is digital transformation — not only at the council level but also at the executive leadership level. Technology and digital cannot be viewed as a sub-component of the city’s overall goals and objectives. It should be embedded throughout.

Other lessons learned we’ve learned include the need for dedicated resources that are focused on advancing innovation within the municipality. This includes engaging citizens and using data to the fullest extent — both within the municipality as well as publicly to users outside of the organization through open data.

Another area we often focus on is the historic underfunding of technology within municipalities. We call it ‘technology debt.’ There need to be focused efforts on both the operating and capital side to advance infrastructure, use emerging technologies, and increase the technical skills of municipal employees.

SM: So, given that, what are some examples of unique uses of digital tools within municipalities that you’ve seen?

WG: One is the use of simple, inexpensive sensors. Sensors can be placed in a number of physical locations within a municipality, and they allow for the collection of unique types of data and data sets.

An example is to put sensors on bike lanes to monitor usage at various times throughout the day, various seasons, intersections, etc. That helps to inform if new bikes lanes are necessary, if they aren’t required in areas that they’ve been installed, etc.

Another unique use of sensors is to place them on soccer fields to monitor the amount of rainfall a specific area within a municipality receives. That data an be shared publicly in open data format and individuals who host soccer events can utilize it on a real-time basis to determine whether select activities should go ahead.

Another unique use of technologies is one I’m going to call crowd sourcing: a municipality can utilize information crowd sourced from its citizens to help make decisions. For example, identifying areas that a citizen deems as safe or unsafe and then the allocating appropriate resources — such as additional lighting — to those spaces. Or maybe it’s the addition of waste bins for areas where there may be an overabundance of pedestrian traffic.

SM: You referenced it a few times just now, so how does data play into all this?

WG: A municipality of any sort, any size, has a significant amount of data. All municipalities offer so many unique types of services to citizens, and they collect data for each of those services.

The open data movement, which is many years old now, has been a tremendous catalyst for change on how municipalities across Canada use and see data. We’ve often encouraged our municipal clients to develop a formal data governance plan — identify data sets, take an inventory, publish resources on an open data catalogue, and use this information to make data-driven decisions.

Presenting this information to council can help them identify alternative courses of action, prioritize different initiatives that could go forward. Providing data that is relevant, timely, and accurate really helps improve the quality of decisions.

It can be at the council level or right in the day-to-day operations of many areas of a municipality. This is called a ‘data first focus’ or mindset and it is a shift in the use and interpretation of data within the municipalities.

But again, its not new, it’s been around for quite awhile and there are some excellent case studies.

Contact us

To learn more about how MNP can help your organization, contact Wendy Gnenz, CPA, CA, CMC, Partner.


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