Edmonton wants to tap into local creativity with labs

The City of Edmonton is hoping to tap into the creative ideas and energy of Edmontonians with two new lab initiatives. Open Lab aims to “create unique technological solutions for municipal challenges” while CITYlab will “advance conversations around urban planning.” Both initiatives, if successful, will change the way the City does business. The hope is that a healthy dose of innovation will be injected into the organization to ultimately result in better, more efficient outcomes for citizens.

Open Lab

The program room at Startup Edmonton was packed yesterday for the launch of Open Lab. Mayor Don Iveson, Startup Edmonton’s Ken Bautista, a few other speakers shared an overview of what the program is and what they’re hoping to achieve with it.

Open Lab Launch

So, what is Open Lab?

“A physical and virtual space where City employees and Startup communities can work together to create innovative solutions to municipal challenges. It is a unique continuous innovation program that combines local government, open data, smart creatives, and lean startup culture to build new products that improve the citizen experience.”

Open Lab is part of the Open City Initiative, which launched back in June. It’s also a partnership with Startup Edmonton, and that’s what makes it different from previous attempts at this same idea.

Startup Edmonton believes there are three main ingredients for a thriving entrepreneurial community: people & innovation, community & collision, and leadership & growth. They believe in the importance of thinking bigger, valuing community, and building to scale.

  • “Smart creatives solve big problems.”
  • “Entrepreneurship is a team sport.”
  • “Entrepreneurial leaders grow & scale companies.”

One of the ways Startup tries to implement these principles is via the lean startup approach. The goal with Open Lab is to add some of that lean startup culture into the City. There are three main components to the initiative:

  • Collision Days – Deep dive events where startups and SMEs discuss technologies, tools, and issues impacting a particular industry or community.
  • Open Lab Accelerator – Helping teams learn how to use lean startup methodologies, customer development, and validate what products to build in the first place.
  • Leadership Program – Developing product managers and leaders inside the city who build and test ideas like startups, using prototyping, behaviour science, and design thinking.

The Open Lab Accelerator is not unlike Preflight, the successful Startup Edmonton program that has helped local success stories like Poppy Barley.

Open Lab Launch

Michael Strong, a planner with the City of Edmonton, was one of the speakers at yesterday’s launch events. He was sort of the guinea pig for Open Lab, and he described how the approach helped his team think about new ways of achieving one of their objectives, which is to get people using and thinking about LRT in a different way. They have mocked up an app that would combine the “get me from A to B” and “what’s around me” approaches to help people more effectively use the LRT.

As I indicated above, this isn’t the first time the City has tried to tap into the local startup community. I am reminded somewhat of the lackluster Leveraging Technical Expertise Locally program, for instance. I think what’s different this time is that everyone involved recognizes the biggest hurdle is culture. And certainly Startup Edmonton has demonstrated success with getting people to think differently in a way that gets results.

Another big difference from the past is that the City has continue to embrace open data and there’s a lot more to work with now than there was six years ago. There’s a greater understanding of what open data is, what the benefits are, and how the City can work together with citizens to get things done. Indeed the news release highlights the recently launched 311 Explorer as one example of “how City data can be useful to everyone.”

So I am optimistic about Open Lab. If you want to find out more in person, Startup Edmonton is hosting a series of Open Lab Meetups on the last Thursday of the month from 2pm to 5pm. Open Lab representatives will be there to hear your ideas and visions and to help guide you.

CITYlab

I have been hearing about CITYlab for months now, but no one could give me a clear description of what it was. In retrospect, that’s probably because no one knew! They had an idea but weren’t sure where to take it. Now CITYlab has found an anchor, in the Open City Initiative, and the City is ready to start experimenting with a new approach to placemaking.

citylab

From the news release:

“CITYlab will partner with groups and individuals on projects and events that test or support the City’s urban planning goals. CityLab will serve as a resource for Edmontonians with creative and new urban planning ideas.”

The aim is to be a “laboratory to support and create small, temporary projects, activities and events to advance conversations around urban planning.” They want to make urban planning fun, as difficult as that might sound!

You might expect a project like this to rely heavily on techology, but CITYlab’s first experiment is decidedly analog. Starting on March 7, CITYlab will be distributing self-addressed stamped postcards across the city. If you get one, they want you to write down your urban planning ideas or projects and send it back. All of the returned postcards will be used to make a temporary art installation, and CITYlab is committing to undertaking at least one of the ideas or projects suggested. If you’re so inclined, you can also submit a project idea online.

citylab

One of the folks behind CITYlab is Jeff Chase, a senior planner who you might know from Edmonton’s NextGen or #yegsnowfight. He is a big supporter of Make Something Edmonton and understands the value of a different way to engage citizens on urban planning. “These creative new approaches to planning will help us meet the challenges that our city faces as it grows,” he said in the news release.

CITYlab still feels a little nebulous to me, but at least it’s out in the open now. If citizens are willing to get involved, it feels like there’s an opportunity to help shape and define the initiative further.

You can follow @PlanEdmonton on Twitter for updates, or check out the #yegcitylab hashtag. You can also email citylab@edmonton.ca if you want more information or two request a postcard.

Taking steps to become an Open City

Here’s what I wrote about the Open City Initiative back in June:

“I like the direction outlined in the Open City Initiative, unfortunately I just don’t have much confidence that it’ll go beyond a report and lots of talk.”

I questioned whether the report would sit on a shelf or if its goals and objectives would be resourced and actioned. With the launch of Open Lab and CITYlab, I’m now a bit more confident that the Open City Initiative will have a real impact. These are tangible projects that I think will make a difference.

I’m excited to see how this unfolds!

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