Niagara Region, ON: Making 13 a Lucky Number

The Niagara Region, for many, is synonymous with good wine and of course the Falls. A great place to visit. But the municipalities in the region also want it to be a place more people call home. A place where all feel they belong.

The CityInclusive team visited the region in early May and had the chance to learn about the development of their Challenge application (we did, in all honesty, also try some wine and see the Falls). Thirteen stakeholders - 12 municipalities and the Region -  stand behind the submission.

We were fortunate to spend some time with a few members of the voluntary Steering Group: Dr. Valerie Jaeger, retired Medical Officer of Health, Niagara; Stuart Hendrie, Chief Information Officer at Niagara Region; Connie McCutcheon, Open Data Lead at Niagara Region; Mary Blom, IT Service Desk and Training Administrator at Niagara Region; Nathan Childs, Site Administrator at Niagara Open Data; Mario De Devitiis, CEO at Niagara Workforce Planning Board; and Thalia Semplonius,  Research Associate at Niagara Workforce Planning Board.

Theirs is a “true community” application, they say. Unsurprising, since the $10 million they are eyeing would be spent to increase a sense of belonging across the region. This would be achieved through creating a digital ecosystem which makes “invisible” members of society “more visible” and connected for the benefit of all. Their plan acknowledges that pain in each community is felt differently by its varied residents, be they homeless, recent immigrants, recently laid-off factory worker, or young college graduates looking for a decent paying job and a place to settle down.

Early on, the team embraced the mantra that technology should not be the primary driver of their application development. For them, it was about engaging in a process to “solve something meaningful in [their] community.” Closely studying the Smart Cities Challenge Applicant Guide helped informed their approach. So did the understanding that being a “Smart City” is as much about having a strong economy, good transportation links and high-speed internet as it is about being “collaborative, inclusive, connected, and engaged.”

Community Engagement and Inclusion

The communities in the region were already in discussions about the concept of the “Smart City” before the Government launched the Challenge. Available data from past engagements (some dating as far back as 2005) within the region was leveraged. There were town hall meetings and stakeholder outreach (in boardrooms and at market days, in different geographic locations), as well as public surveys -- some even focused on collecting individual stories of residents to get a window into their personal challenges. They leveraged social and traditional media, online and in-person conversations, and were guided by transparency through reporting to the community on the centralized website.

All of these conversations, the group noted, were two-way, allowing the residents to learn about the context of the Challenge as well.

Input from youth was, they stated, essential. Local Brock University professor tasked more than a hundred of MBA Information Technology students to develop their own proposal for the Challenge as part of the final assignment. Input from other stakeholders, the group mentioned, was also considered. In particular from the open-government/data spaces, but also private companies. This group is keen to operate in the open source realm as much as possible.  

The group emphasized that they started with “zero preconceived notions” and avoided making assumptions until looking at the data and evidence. They also felt strongly about representative sampling and exploring the entire life course of residents, from eight to 80.

Working Together

The same values that informed the process of the application development also informed the Steering Group dynamics, which at its peak consisted of 50+ people. The Group met every week for half a day and had a centralized and transparent file-sharing system. More importantly, they noted, they had relationships and trust build from past experiences of working together. Most recently, the region participated in the provincial Healthy Kids Challenge and have also won the bid to host the Canada Summer Games in 2021. They have learned that working together, as a region, is more effective than any one community working alone.

Though they admitted that getting 13 stakeholders on the same page has not always been easy. It has required tough consensus building skills. Particularly since some municipalities in the region had started to develop their own Challenge applications before the official guidelines were released; when there were only whispers of the competition.

Going Forward

The Steering Group said they loved the short timeline of the Challenge. It added “dynamism and a sense of urgency,” they observed. Otherwise, residents might have lost interest.

While winning would be nice, the Steering Group said two of the goals were to get better outcomes and galvanize momentum for cooperation. It was also about finding an effective regional governance model for cooperation among municipalities.

It was also about the process, which one of the group members described as “freakin’ awesome!”

Photo Credit: A breathtaking view of an illuminated Niagara Falls. Photo taken by: Blake Ferguson, London. Source: www.niagararegion.ca