There is a city in Ontario that is well on its way to reimagining the role of local government. And it’s not Toronto.
Earlier this year I wrote in this space that the Toronto mayoral candidates were missing the point. I argued that the city is on the cusp of profound changes and needed a mayor with vision and an ability to lead.
The networked age provides new opportunities to reinvent our local infrastructure and institutions.
All the Toronto mayoral candidates ignored the advice. So imagine my surprise when an email from Mayor Karen Farbridge of Guelph arrived, saying that her community is actually working hard to implement the transformations I outlined in the article.
I’ve looked into her claims and have concluded that the city’s elected officials, public servants and 120,000 citizens are well on their way to reimagining the role of local government.
So Toronto mayoral candidates please take note. My vision is achievable. Here is what Guelph is doing in seven key areas I outlined in my original article.
1. Promoting Entrepreneurship to Achieve Prosperity
I argued that when it comes to jobs, entrepreneurship is key, as close to 80 per cent of new jobs come from companies five years old or less, and technology enables little companies to have the capabilities of big companies.
Innovation Guelph is the Guelph region’s central institution for the support of entrepreneurship. Since launching in 2010, it has coached more that 500 companies and helped channel more than $12 million into client companies.
Guelph’s urban planning includes the development of mixed-use residential and business districts, including the Guelph Innovation District. This envisions a large tract of land close to the city’s core being transformed into a vibrant community that will mix residential and business development.
Guelph is collaborating with entrepreneurs and neighbouring communities to create a unique innovation super-cluster corridor, stretching from Toronto through Guelph to Kitchener-Waterloo. The cities of Guelph, Kitchener, Waterloo and the Region of Waterloo partnered with financial and technology sectors to create a business case for provincial and federal investment in all-day, two-way GO commuter rail service. Working together, these communities landed a commitment to increased service and two-way GO train service in the 2014 provincial budget.
2. Open Government
Guelph City Council unanimously approved an ambitious open government plan that had been co-produced from the outset with engaged citizens, local business and community stakeholders. Guelph’s vision for open government is a public service that grows into an “open by default” culture matched by citizens who regularly participate in government decision making.
The city is releasing data sets as public assets and has a vision for including data from community partners, such as businesses, educational institutions and agencies.
Here’s fresh thinking: the orientation manual built traditionally for councillors’ orientation has been turned inside out into an online user guide to local government, so that the public has the same information as new councillors.
The city and University of Guelph are in the early stages of launching a Civic Lab to bring design thinking approaches to address difficult issues affecting local communities.
3.Turning Public Safety Inside Out
Policing is moving into a new paradigm, where police focus on engaging citizens rather than delivering services to them. Already one of the safest cities in Canada, Guelph has launched Guelph Enterprise — a model for innovation in human services. The model asserts that cities do not have a policing problem but a marginalized people problem. To maintain safe communities we need more than just great policing — we need strong health care, education and social services working together.
In a few short months since its inception in May 2014, the group has shown this collaborative approach has tremendous opportunity to free up resources and capacity for stretched service providers.
I saw no evidence that Guelph is preparing for intelligent transportation systems and autonomous vehicle systems that are just around the corner.
However, the city council has made affordable, alternative transportation a priority for Guelph’s growth. Guelph’s cycling master plan has nearly doubled the city’s bike lanes over the past six years and is adding bike lanes as part of all road reconstruction. Guelph now has more than 100 lane-kilometres of bike lanes with another 110 kilometres in varying stages of approval. Guelph residents enjoy an additional 110 kilometres of off-road trails for pedestrians and cyclists.
Transit use is growing. Guelph Central Station was built in downtown Guelph to bring together Guelph Transit, GO trains and buses, VIA Rail and Greyhound buses. Guelph also introduced an affordable bus pass program.
5. Creating a Sustainable City
Amazingly, Guelph is building North America’s first city-wide district energy network.
The Community Energy Initiative is a kind of central heating and cooling system to serve industrial, commercial and residential buildings across the city. The system is designed to draw energy from multiple sources: solar, geothermal, biogas, waste heat and traditional fuels.
Since 2006, Guelph’s population has increased by 10 per cent while greenhouse gas emissions per capita have declined 10 to 15 per cent.
Since 2006, water conservation efforts have reduced average daily water production by 6.1 million litres per day. The average Guelph resident uses 20 per cent less water than the average Ontario resident.
According to Waste Diversion Ontario,Guelph’s innovative organic waste processing plant has led to the highest residential diversion rate of any municipality in Ontario.
The Guelph processing plant was built with additional capacity to be able to receive organic waste from neighbouring municipalities to subsidize the cost paid by Guelph taxpayers for the service.
6. Transforming Social Services
The digital revolution enables cities to better integrate social services, reducing cost and improving value.
Over the years, Guelph social services have decried the “business as usual” siloed approach to delivering public services. Recently, the city formalized this community philosophy with the creation of Guelph Wellbeing. Guelph used the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, developed at the University of Waterloo and rarely used at the city level, to survey residents to assess overall well-being.
The Guelph Wellbeing Leadership Group was formed to champion the initiative and includes 22 community leaders from different sectors, agencies and stakeholders within the city. They agreed to work together using shared performance indicators to tackle tough issues such as of affordable housing, social and physical connectivity, and food security. Instead of duplicating efforts and wasting tax dollars, they are pooling resources inside and outside government to find solutions.
7. Reinventing Local Democracy
Leaders in Guelph, whether at the city or university or in business, social services and community groups, have big ambitions. Events like Hackathons, Health Jams and Change Camps demonstrate a community approach to redefining the relationship between citizens and their local government. If successfully implemented, the open government and Guelph Wellbeing initiatives can go a long way to building trust among community stakeholders, to redefining the role of citizen and government.
Through its work in environmental sustainability, Guelph has demonstrated that cities can innovate. Through its fresh approach to problem-solving and open-government principles, Guelph is challenging the traditional industrial-age approach to local government and democracy. Shared ownership, decentralized decision-making, community engagement have the potential to shift the relationship from “us vs. them” to “we’re in this together.”
I travel the world speaking with and advising government and business leaders. Few communities demonstrate the ambition and discipline of Guelph. And I see no reason why the initiatives in a community of 120,000 can’t be replicated in a city the size of Toronto.
Oh: and to reiterate a final note to Toronto candidates. “Please stop calling me a taxpayer, dammit! I’m a citizen. And I want to live in a 21st century city! Which of you has a vision and plan to get us there?”