TORONTO – Creating a digital working group was just the beginning.

If Toronto – and other Canadian cities, including Calgary and Vancouver, both of which joined Ontario’s capital on this year’s list of the world’s most liveable cities, according to the Economist – wants to thrive in the 21st century, it needs to embrace digital transformation, Mayor John Tory told a crowd made up of city staff and tech industry veterans at Technicity, a Dec. 7 event co-sponsored by IT World Canada.

“Any notion we have that government can afford to be business as usual… any notion that we have that the economy is going to be business as usual… is not a viable or responsible approach to take,” Tory said. “Doing things the old way is just not viable anymore in terms of the cost of using technology versus the cost of not.”

During a separate presentation, Toronto chief corporate officer Josie Scioli mentioned that calling the city’s 311 service costs taxpayers about $18 per transaction, while the same transaction through its 311 website is just $2, but Tory wasn’t simply counting dollars and cents: while praising the city’s financial services and life sciences industries for embracing disruptive technologies, he encouraged the audience to imagine what could happen if they did not.

“If Toronto doesn’t establish itself as a home for all of the disruptors who are going to upset those industries and change them, they will be changed from the outside,” he said. “There will be firms that will be successful at selling applications around the world to transform financial services whether they’re Toronto-based or not.”

Fortunately, he emphasized, neither industry is facing that problem because – partly thanks to government support – they have made the leap. Now it’s up to other industries – and cities, including Toronto – to join them.

“We’re not doing as well as we need to,” Tory admitted, though he gave his speech a day after appointing councillor Michelle Holland as Toronto’s official Advocate for the Innovation Economy.

“People sometimes think that… embracing technology as the future of Toronto’s economy means looking at future incremental opportunity – but in fact it goes way beyond that,” Tory said. “Instead of being bystanders, we have to be leaders.”

Lessons learned from Rogers

As an example of the type of leadership he aspired to, Tory told a story about his former boss, Rogers Communications Inc. founder Ted Rogers Jr., whom he revealed had poor eyesight.

“His eyesight was so poor he couldn’t drive a car, and as a result he also couldn’t use a computer… because at the time there wasn’t technology that would have made it possible,” Tory. “But he nonetheless… was a great visionary of what was going to happen with technology.”

Rogers, Tory said, had a knack for predicting technological upheavals years or even decades before they happened, and often encountered resistance among his executive team – including Tory, who served as president and CEO of the company’s Rogers Media division between 1995 and 1999 – as a result.

“As his team, we were naturally inclined to say – and I was among the ones first and foremost who would be saying this – ‘you probably shouldn’t venture in that direction,'” Tory said. “‘It’s too risky, we’re going to upset the core business.'”

“The IT department of Rogers was a favourite one for saying that,” he continued. “‘You can’t do that, because the following 11 other things will be disrupted.'”

“But he pushed us to do it, and sometimes it caused chaos, as those of you who have been Rogers customers will know, because… half the time it was the introduction of some new product that wasn’t ready for primetime,” Tory said.

But, he pointed out, Rogers was ultimately right – there’s a reason the company is now the largest mobile service provider in Canada.

Case study: Improving Toronto’s program registration platform

For an example of the goodwill a single well-executed digital transformation project can generate, Tory shared how the city went about improving its famously atrocious program registration system.

And that’s Tory’s word, not ours: “It was this atrocious combination – and I say this not with any criticism of our staff, because quite frankly… political people failed to make the investment in keeping this system up to date,” he said, describing a system that involved “people lining up… trying to get through on the phone… trying to get through online… and last but not least people who showed up to fill out pieces of paper on clipboards.”

The result, as Tory admitted and the Toronto Star was fond of pointing out, was a system that left countless parents frustrated, and Tory, who as recently as March told the Star the city’s registration infrastructure was being held together with “chewing gum and chicken wire,” vowed to do something about it.

“It’s 2015 and we were keeping waiting lists on paper,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, the city’s IT staff said that nobody had been given the green light to invest in new infrastructure, Tory said, and while plans to do so were finally set in motion, in the meantime it was decided that city staff should strive to fix its current system to the best of its ability, recruiting startup veterans and even representatives from OCAD University to redesign the registration platform’s website, increase its server capacity, inform residents exactly what they needed to do to register, and divide a one-day process in half, which reduced the number of registrants logging in at one time.

The result? This week, 81 per cent of residents signing up reported that the system had been greatly improved, Tory said, while the platform itself completed 26 per cent more registrations during the first hour than last year.

“We’re still running at only a modest pace on the actual procurement of the new system,” Tory admitted. “And that’s partly because what’s available out there doesn’t necessarily meet our needs, which is always problematic… but we’re moving ahead.”

Meanwhile, the improvements the city has made to the old platform has resulted in people people telling Tory and other city staff something they almost never hear: Praise.

“To me… the decision to move forward with a new system, the decision to improve the old system pending procurement, and the execution of the improvements, is a model of how we have to do business at city hall, and show ourselves to be leaders,” Tory said.

International reputation at stake

Finally, for a simple illustration of what the city has to gain by embracing digital transformation, Tory shared an anecdote from his visit to Israel, which has become a world leader in the technology and life sciences industries, with members of Toronto’s tech sector last month.

“The pitch we were making is for all these companies, which of course only have a market of 8.5 million in Israel, if they want to have access to the North American market, with 300-plus million people, they should come here,” Tory said. “And they said to us that when it comes to technology companies, ‘we consider New York to be an option to establish a North American presence, and we consider Silicon Valley to be an option.”

“We know Toronto exists,” he continued. “We know it’s a big city and has very friendly connections with Israel and the Jewish community… but we just don’t think about it.”

“And that’s our fault,” Tory said. “Because we haven’t gone to them and said, ‘The talent pool we have here is magnificent. We have an infrastructure here of institutions, governments, and companies that will be a test bed, and there are people here doing exciting things who can work with you as partners.'”

The message

Without digital ambassadors, in both the city and its private sector, Tory said, opportunities like Israel will continue to elude Toronto’s grasp.

“If I have a message for you today, it’s this… Please help me by making sure that we move ahead with this as rapidly as possible,” he said. “Don’t let bureaucratic inertia, or ‘we’ve always done it this way,’ or ‘it’ll wreck the system’ stand in the way of moving forward.”

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  • Great piece, Eric. I was there to see Tory speak and he was inspiring. You’ve captured the essence of that. speech. Great work. I’d really be interested in comments from others on this piece.