Q&A: Smart Cities Challenge director on building a better application

If you’re interested in submitting, supporting, or contributing to an application for the Smart Cities Challenge, you’ll want to read this.

As Director General of the Smart Cities Challenge team at Infrastructure Canada, Gerard Peets has led the charge in the Challenge’s development since it was launched last November by Amarjeet Sohi, Canada’s Minister of Infrastructure and Communities. As communities prepare their applications, Peets and his team are getting ready for the selection of finalists this summer.

Originally announced last June, the Smart Cities Challenge is open to communities of all sizes across Canada, with one prize of $50 million available to all communities, two prizes of $10 million for communities with populations of 500,000 and under, and one prize of $5 million exclusively for communities with populations of 30,000 and under.

While Infrastructure Canada hasn’t officially begun accepting submissions as of this writing, the application questions and criteria can be found on the Government of Canada’s Impact Canada Challenge website. Communities have been given a deadline of April 24, 2018 to submit their proposals.

ITBusiness.ca reached out to Peets to find more about the challenge from the horse’s mouth, and hopefully pick up some hints for aspiring applicants along the way.

ITBusiness.ca: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us.

Smart Cities Challenge team Director General Gerard Peets

Gerard Peets: My pleasure.

ITB: To start, can you tell us why Infrastructure Canada put this challenge together in the first place?

Peets: More than anything, the government of Canada wants to innovate in the way delivers programs. We want to give communities a platform they can use to leverage data and connected technology for residents in a really meaningful way.

This is actually the first program stream that the Government is running under the Impact Canada Initiative. It provides an open-ended platform where communities can come forward with their ideas. The best ones will get funded, and we’ll learn from the process along the way.

It aligns really well with the government’s investment of over $180 billion through the Investing in Canada infrastructure plan, and will let us seed future work with some really great ideas.

ITB: How are you going about organizing the Challenge?

Peets: The Challenge has received $300 million in funding over 11 years to deliver multiple competitions. So this first competition, with the four prizes that have been announced – one for $50 million, two worth $10 million each, and one for $5 million – is just the beginning.

To start, we really want to make sure that communities are coming forward with ideas that are truly impactful and meaningful to residents. So to do that we’ve split this competition into two phases: The first phase is the application, and in the initial application the emphasis is on what we call the “Challenge Statement”: What you want to accomplish and why it is important. We’ve also asked for a high-level plan for how you’re going to leverage data and connected technology to achieve it.

We’re asking communities to essentially pick something their residents would say needs fixing, and to go on the record as saying, “Look, here’s where we stand today. We’d like to make this quantifiable, measurable improvement in the future. And we’re going to use a smart cities approach to do it.”

ITB: How much detail are you looking for in these challenge statements?

Peets: Well, they have a 50-word limit.

ITB: 50? Really?

Peets: The key is that we want something ambitious and attainable. So the actual challenge statement is a single sentence that will say, for example, “Our community is currently at X on the spectrum, and by leveraging data and connected technology, we’re going to attain a level of Y.”

Then that’s backed up by a defense and full explanation, of course – why was this issue chosen as opposed to other issues? What’s the basis for which you think we can achieve Y as an end state? How do you think the proposed use of data and connected technology is going to get you there? – but we want the core statement to be as succinct as possible.

ITB: What level of detail are you looking for from the application itself?

Peets: If you look at our guide, which includes some sample statements, you’ll see there are eight questions that are going to be evaluated, and we’re also looking for additional information about the applicants – whether the community is a municipal government, regional government, or indigenous.

And there are word limits – I think a completed application should be in the area of 15 pages. We really wanted a crisp application that wouldn’t overburden communities with paperwork.

ITB: Have you seen anything from applicants yet?

Peets: Right now we’re in the phase where applicants are actually developing their challenge statements, and in the process of engaging with their communities over what their proposals will look like. So for now we’ve been following the challenge along with everyone else using our hashtag #smartcitiesCanada on social media, and have been able to kind of keep track of some of the ideas that are being thrown around.

We’re really pleased with the level of excitement that’s building, but essentially we’ll have to wait until after April 24th when the applications actually come in to say anything further.

What I will say for now is we’re really pleased with the response. We’re seeing communities coming forward publicly saying they’re going to participate in the challenge. They’re pulling input from their residents, they’re developing partnerships, and they’re thinking concretely about what they should be doing in the smart city space. This is as a result of the incentive provided by the prizes – and that’s before the government has awarded a single dollar.

I should also point out that applications that are accepted are all going to be put online, so everybody will be able to look at what has come in, whether it’s people who want to see what their community has put forward, or businesses and organizations who might want to join the conversation.

ITB: How much attention is Infrastructure Canada paying to public input as it looks over the submissions?

Peets: Public input is really important to us. What we hope will happen is that people will be inspired by what their communities propose, and that it will be a way to encourage civic engagement. And really the first condition for getting there is involving community residents from the outset, both in terms of listening to the issues that people bring forward, and framing their solutions at a community level.

I’d like to think the challenge statements that communities come up with will be instantly recognizable as important to the people who live there.

ITB: How are the submissions going to be evaluated?

Peets: This is really central to the Challenge. The evaluation will be done by a jury, and we’ve just completed an open call for prospective jury members. It’s going to be really exciting because the jury we’re aiming for is around 15 people from across the country who are publicly recognized in their field, have a track record of leadership, and a demonstrated interest in public issues. Our jury will come from a range of disciplines.

I think diversity is going be a key feature of this jury. Minister Sohi will appoint the jury based on a number of factors, including for sure, region, but also gender, and diversity of background, ensuring Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives and others.

ITB: You also want to hear from cities of all sizes, correct? You don’t want smaller communities – or even mid-sized cities – to look at the $50 million grand prize and assume that only Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, or Ottawa have a shot.

Peets: For sure. First of all: There is no grand prize. All prizes are the grand prize, and the reason for that is we’re anticipating communities of different sizes and capacities going after the prize size that is transformational for them. I should also note that all communities in Canada are eligible to go for the $50 million prize. We’re not limiting ambition. If a smaller community has an idea and wherewithal to pursue a $50 million proposal, then they’re eligible to try.

That said, the reverse is not the case. Any community above 500,000 people will not be allowed to compete for the $10 million or the $5 million. Any community above 30,000 people will not be allowed to compete for the $5 million.

All communities chosen as finalists will receive a $250,000 grant to invest in their proposal.

ITB: And why did you set it up that way?

Peets: We set it up that way so that every community in this country can see themselves participating in and potentially winning the challenge. It’s very important that this be an inclusive process, and if we’re talking about leveraging of data and connected technology to achieve meaningful outcomes for residents, well, that type of digital transformation is just as meaningful for a small community as it is for a large city.

Communities large and small are facing issues around integrating technology so they can deliver better services for their residents. They’re all facing issues around using open data to include as many people as possible in their policy decisions, or to better manage their infrastructure. So why would we not want to create a process that every community, no matter its shape and size, be part of?

ITB: Do you think the government will run a similar program in the future?

Peets: Well, the first thing is this is the first competition of the Smart Cities Challenge, and yes, we do hope to run additional competitions in the future.

The second thing is, there are a lot of important links between various initiatives of the government, and of course there’s programming at the department of Innovation, Science and Economic development that relates to both R&D and the development and commercialization of technology – most recently the innovation superclusters initiative.

If programming like that is aimed at developing Canadian leadership in technology, this program and this initiative, the Smart Cities Challenge, is aimed at using technology to solve issues that matter to Canadians across the country. I think it’s very complementary of the programming that the government of Canada has in place to develop and commercialize technology.

ITB: Is there anything else you want to add?

Peets: We really do hope that this process is going to benefit a really wide range of people and communities, beyond just those that receive prizes.

I think we’re already kind of seeing that –the emergence of a pan-Canadian conversation about the issues that communities are facing, and how technology can help solve them, whether it’s around data, whether it’s around integration of technology, whether it’s around running outcomes-based initiatives at the community level. So then it’s not just the people who win the money who benefit.

This interview has been edited and condensed. It was originally conducted for the March 2018 issue of the Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA)/ASIM Canada’s official magazine, Municipal Interface, which can be read here.

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Eric Emin Wood
Eric Emin Wood
Former editor of ITBusiness.ca turned consultant with public relations firm Porter Novelli. When not writing for the tech industry enjoys photography, movies, travelling, the Oxford comma, and will talk your ear off about animation if you give him an opening.

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