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Why Vancouver's Digital Strategy Falls Short

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In the past week the City of Vancouver laid out their new Digital Strategy. It outlines the "current state, the results of the consultation process, the goals and objectives, the strategy's digital initiatives, and a road map for action plans." Their vision is to "Enhance multidirectional digital connections amongst citizens, employees, business, and government."

It seems like strong vision and an assurance that they have a plan.

But is it a good strategy? Personally, I feel it is a safe governmental play that drags us to be where we should be right now in 2013, but with full implementation not until 2016. At that point we'll be four years behind. It falls short because it is designed to run at the administration's pace.

City Hall has ignored how quickly digital moves in terms of technology, trends, opportunities for citizen empowerment and needs for infrastructure. The strategy lacks profiles of who in Vancouver really needs this. Surely a one size fits all solution will not work.

For the digitally advanced, Vancouver will continue to be behind the times. For the average citizen, very little change will be seen or felt.

On May 11, at Cyborg Camp YVR, there is a meeting of minds that will look at the future of the relationship between humans and technology. One speaker, Ryan Betts, will talk about how "Cities eat Cyborgs." He states that cyborgs -- or people enabled through technology -- rush to cities, and that the cities eat them alive.

Ryan is a great thinker and doer, hails from Tsawwassen, and has worked on digital solutions across the world and on open data initiatives and apps that apply to Vancouver. He thinks that technology doesn't change in cities, cities change technology. No matter how much we wish we could wave the wand of technology to fix civic and social issues, they are better restructured through slow processes: policy, regulation, zoning, and cultural programming.

I'd like to offer 3 suggestions for the City to consider that combat these slow processes that are so evident in the strategy:

1. See Vancouver as a digital start up
We need to view Vancouver as a green field site for digital innovation. Focusing on changing and evolving what exists already is expensive and could be futile in some cases. Sure, we can't reboot the whole city and its processes however the city should start side initiatives that address challenges in a new way without the constraints of what processes, technologies and organizations that exist today. This will mean new ways of structuring decision making and teams undertaking the work. That is start up culture. We have people that can help get make this approach a reality so let's hope the city will look to engage them.

2. Mobilize specialist teams to deliver quickly
Four years is a mighty long time in digital years. Vancouver will always be chasing its tail unless it can mobilize smaller teams that see opportunities, can develop great citizen-centric solutions and deliver results in three to six months. They need thinkers and doers. The strategy does talk about having a number of "proofs of concepts", but a better approach is to have teams design real solutions that are then actually implemented. The City of Vancouver, and its citizens, should not be afraid to fail. For every 10 digital solutions only two or three will make sense in the long run. Even failed projects will lead to a stronger vision and delivery capability.

The strategy does fails to highlight which digital experts have been engaged on an ongoing basis. Maybe it's time to build a team that can move quickly using money from the city to make a change?

3. Don't be afraid to adjust the strategy as we progress
Digital strategies should not be written to be static. They should be reviewed every three months as technologies, citizen behaviors, city infrastructure and trends change. Open data will continue to grow and find new applications, open thinking will be needed and there needs to be breathing room to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.

These are three truths that will help with controlling the strategy's scope while allowing for adjustment.

At least we do have a strategy and some kind of plan; it's better than nothing. There are shortcomings, but now is the chance to start implementing it the right way. We have the people in the city to really accelerate this. City Hall needs to raise its head from the plans, find these people and give them some power. Over to you, Mayor Gregor Robertson.