May 27, 2020

Resilient Cities, Post COVID-19: Accelerating Innovation


Governments across Canada were opening up to change and innovation long before COVID-19. The hundreds of submissions to the federal government’s Smart Cities Challenge is just one example of how local governments are looking to advance new solutions to community challenges – in this case using data and technology approaches.

This pandemic has further prompted communities across the world to consider what new tools and approaches should be used to mitigate the impacts of the current crisis and prevent similar ones in the future. Innovative approaches led by governments, the private sector, academics, and civil society have popped up quickly with initiatives like Adopt-A-Business programs to support small businesses, a slew of global hackathons, new ways to use public space such as outdoor retail expansions, “health corridors”, and parking spaces converted to outdoor patios, several controversial contact tracing apps, free digital tools and technical support for government teams, and so much more.

While the crisis certainly warrants innovative approaches, challenges around equity, privacy, data governance, tight municipal budgets, digital and built infrastructure maintenance, social and open procurement, and digital inequality cannot be forgotten in the heat of the moment.

The race to innovate…

This crisis has further accelerated our race to innovate – which is great. We need new solutions. But as communities move into recovery, they should slow down long enough to ensure that solutions are responding to real challenges and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. Some of the changes that will need to be made coming out of this crisis will be to undo some of the “innovations” of our past – like car-oriented urban planning. In some cases, we will need to adapt old tools and approaches to our current context. In others, we will be adopting new technologies that should come together with new regulations. Sometimes the private sector will be engaged to spur innovation – those relationships will need to be built in ways that protect the public interest, keep the public sector accountable, and ensure the process is democratic. In all cases, these efforts should be cohesive and truly respond to the problems they are designed to solve.

In the third of this series, we’re focusing on accelerating innovation.

Accelerating Innovation

Embrace change and remove barriers that slow experimentation, testing, and adoption of promising new city-building approaches. 

Keywords:  technology; local; experimentation;  equity;  people first; mental health; indigenous principles; seven generations 

An Indigenous Reimagining of Cities

Tanya Chung-Tiam Fook is Senior Lead of Indigenous Engagement at Evergreen 
Toronto, Ontario   

Alongside a mounting climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how broken, unsustainable and unjust are our global politico-economic and food systems, supply chains, extractive industries, and business-as-usual paradigms. As devastating as the impacts are, especially for our most vulnerable communities and social groups, times of crisis also compel us to repair and rebuild what is broken. As we work toward recovery and resilience in our communities and cities, we can think of this as an opportunity to be more truthful about the world we are leaving behind; and more conscious, innovative, and ‘seven generations-minded’ in our re-imagining of a future for current and subsequent generations. In terms of innovation, our Indigenous knowledge-keepers have a unique perspective that requires us to look back to our cultural teachings, values and practices so that we can look forward by creating new pathways and new futures that are self-determined and self-reliant, socially connected, healthy, caring and equitable.  

People are looking more than ever for teachings and models that connect us to one another and to place; and that hold the promise of transforming more regenerative and life-sustaining cities. Despite the devastating, long-term impacts of colonialism and forced assimilation on Indigenous cultures and communities around the world, our diverse Indigenous cultures have proven time and again to be self-reliant, resilient and transformative in the face of crisis. As Indigenous peoples, our complex, place-based and long-evolved knowledges and technologies have provided the necessary tools and wisdom to recover, revitalize and adapt or transform our cultures so that we not only survive, but flourish. Our Indigenous teachings remind us that our connectedness and stewardship responsibilities to land, place, kin, community and the sacred are the roots and foundation that support and cultivate the many community and institutional branches and pathways of our future cities.   

Reimagining the Future of Cities 

Jayne Engle is the Director of Cities for People and Future Cities Canada at the McConnell Foundation  
Montréal, Québec 

The pandemic affords a moment to reimagine the future of cities, and we should be hasty about making the most of it. We can take many ‘what if’ propositions from the shelves. […]  

 I think as a result of this pandemic, cities will be more experimental, by necessity, and will fail frequently.  City dwellers will get used to and come to expect cleaner air – a positive externality of the pandemic.  

Through cycles of rapid experimentation and prototyping, I hope cities will grow innovation capabilities and capture public imagination about how our cities could be.  I hope we will change the nature of how we understand and create value – to simultaneously address health, climate and inequality crises, such as by valuing natural assets in cities like urban forests, and by valuing the labour of care for people and all life.  

Governments can support recovering by setting up regionally-based Civic Innovation Endowments to seed community development financial institutions and to experiment with prototypes that radically challenge socially-constructed assumptions, such as private property ownership rights, and the dominance of the private car in how we build and organize our cities. They can embed Indigenous governance principles in municipal governance, which would mean investing in new forms of social infrastructure and community wealth building institutions that center inclusive, participatory culture. 

Ancestral Laws Combined with Contemporary Resources 

Gary Wilson, Director of Operations, Coastal First Nations Great Bear Initiative
Haida Gwaii, British Columbia

While these are unprecedented times, socioeconomic crisis and pandemics are nothing new to Coastal First Nations. Since European contact, member communities have and continue to defend against the ongoing outside forces putting unsustainable pressures on our environment and resources. These pressures cause a perilous and uncertain existence for our current and future generations. Similar to past crises, COVID-19 is testing the resilience of the Coastal First Nation (CFN) communities. As with our ancestors before us, our leadership and people have responded appropriately by looking to our Indigenous laws and utilizing contemporary resources and techniques in collaboration with our partners. In this way, we have been able to protect our greatest and most precious assets: the land and our people, with a particular focus on elders, knowledge keepers and language holders, children and youth.

Our leadership realizes that in order to achieve our vision, we will need to leverage not only technology resources, but to also build and nurture new alliances with key partners who share our vision pre- and post-COVID. Working with partners like Connected Communities BC Connectivity Working Group helped to identify support mechanisms like the appropriate tech products and services that could help to boost limited bandwidth in communities and/or provide back-up connectivity options and safeguards in support of their needs. Telehealth has been an important service for communities to access prior to and during the pandemic.

While we continue to manage our response to this pandemic, our communities and CFN organization are also considering the new normal post-pandemic. In particular, we are planning how to adapt to a new future while continuing to protect our coast and build our conservation economy. We do this by enacting our ancestral laws through ecosystem-based management principles, and combining them with contemporary resources such as high speed Internet and the best of digital infrastructure. Technological tools help us to inform and prepare ourselves for an uncertain future, with the hopes that government, industry and community partners will be inspired to embrace our approach and scale adapted activities across the country.

Resilient Open Data and Open Government Processes

Jean-Noé Landry is the Executive Director of Open North and a Fellow at the Centre for Law Technology and Society
Montréal, Québec

Governments will start to invest more resources in emergency management and tracking of the population. More government collaborations with research units and the private sector will emerge as a result and AI will increasingly be viewed as a solution to detecting issues […] Governments will look at how they can be more flexible, and we may see large investments, at least from the big cities, in their internal IT capacity to support work from home. […] If work from home continues as a major trend, we may also see new arrangements of city services, with potentially more centralization, and more data collection/surveying to understand the new needs this structural economic shift is producing for city and other services.

In the rush to create new plans and procure new systems, it may be easy to overlook data standardisation and interoperability. Standardisation, interoperability of data/systems, and coordination of functions remain key problems that need to be tackled[…] Open data and open government processes may also need to change to become more resilient to these shocks. Our expectations of government openness remain, despite the pandemic. While online consultation has already been adopted to some extent prior to the pandemic, issues such as digital divides limit their effectiveness.

In the short term, collaboration and data sharing between cities are still key. Cities, particularly neighbours, may be looking to each other for information on their emergency policies and recovery plans. Sharing information on stockpiles of medical supplies, service availability, and private sector capacity (to support efforts against the pandemic) are all vital to improve coordination.

Support for Innovation and Technology Sectors 

Jarret Leaman is Partner, Philanthropy and Business Development at Troon Technologies and the Founder of the Centre for Indigenous Innovation and Technology
Toronto, Ontario 

I believe that COVID-19 has forced an increase in people’s capabilities to work from home with some choosing to keep this arrangement after the pandemic. This will allow people to explore their neighbourhoods and support local businesses and initiatives.  

With employers rushing to ensure that their employees can work during lock-down, we have seen an increased awareness of data security and how our current technology may be limited. This will increase the use of decentralized technologies to eliminate the risk of data security breaches.  

All levels of government can continue to support innovation and technology sectors during the pandemic and post-pandemic, as we need this sector to allow the country to manoeuvre for the next crisis we might face.    

Building Infrastructure to Handle Trauma 

Pam Sethi is the Head of Mental Health Innovation at the Institute for Advancements in Mental Health 
Toronto, Ontario 

We need to start planning for post-pandemic needs, and the infrastructure to handle trauma. How do we go from physical isolation back into urban density and the bustle of city living? As we have now been conditioned to associate isolation with safety, what might this mean for us around trust in proximity we urbanites once normalized pre-pandemic? Proximity permeates every aspect of living in a city and so what is the role of the pandemic on our sense of safety, wellness and mental health and human connection?    

Looking ahead, we will need to really focus on innovating pandemic-induced stress and trauma. There is a big push to move towards “innovating” around our wellness– going virtual while maintaining that human connection and community that is so critical. Frugal innovation through human-centered design approaches has been key for mental health services and program, most effective and at its best during this time – using telephone sessions, text reminders, and simple education platforms. Peer to peer support is happening indirectly and passively in response to these times, but could easily be facilitated in a post-pandemic world. We hope more financial support and resources will be put into investing in simple, yet effective technologies that make sense for individual needs (e.g. most seniors prefer telephone, younger groups prefer text messages) that form our sense of community and how we stay connected now and into the future.   

Finding this resource useful?

We’ve got hundreds more toolkits, videos, podcasts and reports available for free. Simply register now and you’ll get full access to our library of world class city building resources.