March 7, 2023

Five Questions with David Messer of the City of Guelph

by Evergreen

This Innovation Series features some of the inspiring people working on smart solutions in communities across Canada

Headshot of David MesserTitle: Executive Director, Smart Cities Office

Organization: City of Guelph

Can you describe your role and what excites you most about your work?

I lead two initiatives aimed at advancing circularity and sustainability across our region: Our Food Future which is aimed at creating a regional circular food economy; and COIL (Circular Opportunity Innovation Launchpad), aimed at advancing circular economy innovations across the food, environment and construction, renovation and demolition sectors.  

Prior to joining the city I worked in the technology sector, including around the concept of smart cities. A lot of the value proposition is that new data can help organizations make smarter decisions and plan better. In some use cases, like transportation, that makes a lot of sense and is relatively easy to apply. However, so many of the systems we work with every day are broken. For instance one third of all food produced in Canada is being wasted while 1 in 7 Canadians are food insecure. Thousands of tonnes of useful non-renewable resources are being sent to landfills every year instead of being recycled.  

The smart cities work we’re doing in Guelph and Wellington County is about trying to make these broken systems work better. We use the model of the circular economy and technology to see how we can reduce waste, reduce emissions and deliver better social and economic impacts for communities.  

About 55% of global emissions can be reduced by switching to clean energy, but for the other 45% we need to transform our economy to be less wasteful and resource intensive. This will take a huge amount of innovation and experimentation in the next decade. I’m very excited that Guelph and Wellington are on the leading edge of some of this work through our smart cities program.  

Can you tell us a little about the Smart Cities Challenge winning project Our Food Future? 

Our Food Future launched in 2020 with three core goals: 

  • Increase access to affordable, nutritious food by 50% 
  • Create 50 new circular food businesses or collaborations, and 
  • Increase the instances where waste is being used as a resource by 50% 

This is a whole-of-community project working with hundreds of stakeholders across the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Across the region, our various partners have launched over 80 projects in the last three years. This includes developing new AI technologies for municipal waste vehicles, funding over 40 food access interventions, creating new organic waste diversion and food rescue systems with local businesses, and supporting over 250 businesses to adopt more circular approaches.  

From the start, this program has been very conscious of creating scalable solutions that could be applied in other jurisdictions, and we’re starting to see a lot of that now. We’ve produced a considerable amount of food systems research that can be easily transferred to other cities. Our industrial, commercial, and institutional (ICI) sector organics diversion pilot is now being replicated in Calgary through the Circular Innovation Council, and we’re working with colleagues in Vancouver and Halifax to replicate some of our business innovation work.  

With COVID, we were able to adjust our program to deliver interventions quickly, so we’re on track to now finish the program in December 2023, two years ahead of schedule. But we’re also on track to meet and exceed our original goals.

The smart cities work we’re doing in Guelph and Wellington County is about trying to make these broken systems work better. We use the model of the circular economy and technology to see how we can reduce waste, reduce emissions and deliver better social and economic impacts for communities.

David Messer

What have been the major milestones of this project since launching in January 2020?

In May 2020, as COVID lockdowns were at their height, we launched a reframing of our program called Grow Back Better which brought almost $2-million into our communities to launch interventions that could support food access and economic resiliency during the emergency. I think this shift was a major milestone in forcing us to make our program more nimble and experimental than government innovation projects can sometimes be.  

In spring 2021 we released our Food Waste Flow Study, which has guided several of our interventions in the years since.  

In 2021, we also marked a victory on working with 50 businesses, and with additional funding, we were able to double down by launching the COIL initiative which has helped us work with over 100 additional circular businesses across Ontario. In 2022 with funder support, we were able to use the same methods to create circularity in the food sector and apply them to the construction sector.  

What are the obstacles the project has had to overcome?

COVID was absolutely a challenge. But it brought into focus the importance of community resiliency, and in many ways, allowed our local food system to be top of mind for other organizations which helped us advance our mission. Similarly, the supply chain issues in the past few years have caused challenges in several projects, but they have also helped raise awareness of generating greater value from the resources we have and wasting less.  

What would you like to see next for Our Food Future?

We are talking with several other communities, including Vancouver and Halifax about building on some of our models. We are also looking a lot at how standards can incentivize shifts towards climate smart and circular business models. We hope to pilot a new approach to regenerative agriculture standards in the spring.  

Beyond specific projects, our goal is to transition Our Food Future from a municipally-led initiative into a broader community movement where a range of stakeholders collaborate around shared priorities on an ongoing basis. This project has truly shown that by collaborating, all organizations can get further ahead than when they go it alone. We hope that carries on into the future.   

Bonus question! What are you working on right now? 

We’ve just installed sensors in organic waste carts for about 45 ICI businesses. These sensors are collecting real time data on the waste these businesses produce.  Current estimates are that about 65 percent of food waste comes from business, but the data quality for the ICI sector is generally weak. So, we look forward to these sensors giving much better data.  

Beyond data, we plan to use the sensors to create competitive dashboards, pay-by-weight business models and other approaches to incentivize businesses to reduce the food waste they produce.  

We are also launching a national innovation challenge looking at construction, renovation and demolition materials that are typically hard to recycle. We hope this is the first of many national challenges to build more momentum around the circular economy.  

Connect with David on LinkedIn

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