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Article Article July 25th, 2023
Cities • Delivery • Innovation

Who doesn't like tagging cars? A story of innovation in Calgary government

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.@cityofcalgary participated in @CPI_foundation & @publicinno's Innovation Training Program to adopt innovation techniques that engage residents in ideas with potential long-term impact.

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“Innovation is the only way we’re going to solve these complex challenges that face our city - you can’t use the traditional process. You need to humanise the problems, because ultimately we serve humans."

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“Despite the long hours, people were refreshed, people were getting those “a-ha” moments where they realise there is a better way to do work in government." @cityofcalgary

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Calgary, Alberta, Canada participated in the Innovation Training Program, delivered in partnership with the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) and Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation. Innovation Training is designed to help cities adopt cutting-edge innovation techniques that engage residents in testing, adapting, and scaling ideas with the potential for long-term impact.

“Who doesn’t like tagging cars?”

On an otherwise ordinary day in downtown Calgary, a white car pulled up on Olympic Plaza. The driver rolled down their windows, blaring loud beat-driven music. Within a few minutes, groups of young people, who spend their days hanging about Olympic Plaza, were scrawling their thoughts on every available surface of the car.

“It was nothing like an ordinary day at work,” says Cathie Christenson, who works for the City Government and is the owner of the white car.

“We were going downtown to do guerilla engagement. How do we record engagement apart from clipboards? Well, I have a white car and a bunch of young people were there and I had whiteboard markers and I just said ‘decorate my car’. We just invited them to write their comments directly on the car. It was a spectacle, it attracted people to come and see what we were doing and - who doesn’t like tagging cars?”

This unusual approach to youth engagement was part of the city’s participation in the Innovation Training Program. CPI delivers Innovation Training in partnership with Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation. Innovation Training helps cities adopt cutting-edge innovation techniques that engage residents in testing, adapting, and scaling ideas with the potential for long-term impact. Calgary joined 12 other cities around the world, from Brazil to Poland, to address pressing city problems for the 2022 phase of the project.

Kiyoshi Robson, who leads the city’s Innovation Lab explains:

“Innovation is the only way we’re going to solve these complex challenges that face our city - you can’t use the traditional process. You need to humanise the problems, because ultimately we serve humans. This work was a showcase piece, it will have an impact far beyond this project or team.”

“What we thought was the problem, didn’t actually turn out to be the problem.”

The ITP programme came along at exactly the right time for the Calgary Municipality. They had recently learned that the funding for the youth strategy had been cut and they needed to think fast to meet the needs of young people in the city.

As Lisa Sierra, Co-Lead and Manager of Innovation, Business & Resilience, says, “We felt, what’s the harm in trying?”

The initial project wanted to address the issue of young people leaving the city because of a lack of opportunities and community culture. However, when the team took the time to innovate and listen more closely to youth’s stories, they learned that it was a bit more complicated.

Lisa continues,

“One of the things we found was that the narrative that young people were leaving in droves wasn’t exactly true. We were seeing the same net migration for other cities. For young people who are able to do that, there’s a natural drive to try out something new.

One of the conversations that sticks in my head is about the youth who maybe don’t have a choice, that it’s a privileged choice to be able to decide you just want to go to another city. It was important to include those voices, of people who can’t just pack up and leave. How does that feel and how do we make sure the city is attractive for those people?”

This idea of including voices was at the heart of what the city government team did next. They assembled colleagues from across a range of departments to develop a systems-based approach to the problem.

Cathie explains,

“We were working in separate departments: it’s involved youth, downtown development, public transit, arts and culture, employment services, business improvement areas. It cuts right across the system. Even beyond the scope of the municipality, to businesses and community. It’s all about the wider system asking what would make Calgary more vibrant?”

The team focused on making downtown Calgary more attractive to young people in two ways: supporting them to feel safer on public transit and inviting young artists to contribute to community culture. The young people have seen their ideas put into action, aligning with a transit ambassador pilot that aims to make people feel safer when using public transport. A youth artist has designed a patch for the non-uniformed vests that the ambassadors will wear while working.

“It is about building services for all Calgarians, not just the ones who will fill out a survey.”

While the idea of inviting young people to tag a car might sound a little gimmicky, the data that the team gathered through a range of methods has been deeply valuable in planning their work. They gathered almost 1000 ideas from hundreds of young people, many of whom told them they’d never had the chance to have their voices heard before.

Cathie says,

“The innovation process really pushed the envelope on equity. Standard practice for reaching out for diverse voices is now not standard. We know we have to do more to get those voices to truly develop our policies and strategies. For my work area, it has been 100% impactful.

Usually, we’d reach out through the non profit sector, but that’s still reaching people who are already connected, to an extent. The guerilla tactics really opened my eyes - you have to go where people are just living their lives. It’s not enough to post an engagement opportunity on the city’s website and hope for diverse engagement.”

The project employed a dedicated Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging lead, Komal Kardar, who made sure the team worked hard to hear from those people whose voices are often missing in government work. She told us:

“People have to tell their own stories and we need to make the effort to hear those stories. We can’t centre ourselves in the process. It’s so important that we talk about creating a space where they can contribute meaningfully and we’ve made it safe for them. We heard feedback from people: ‘this is the first time it felt like my voice mattered’.

Komal’s colleagues reflected on the role of embedding this thinking across their work.

“We learned it’s not only the DEIB lead’s role to ensure we’re including those voices,” said Lisa.

“Some of our discussion about language and who we were missing, some of the assumptions we made didn’t bear out when we interviewed people. We sought people out and we were able to build trust and have a real conversation.”

The team saw the value of this approach for developing meaningful answers to the tricky problems they faced. Moraig McCabe, Innovation Designer said:

“The engagement needs to be real, you need to have those conversations to find out what people really want. Going out and giving them a choice of a, b and c and ticking boxes isn’t going to work. Those conversations are crucial, I kind of knew that before, but it hammers it home.”

Her colleague Cathie continues,

“We were looking for people’s stories and dug around to get that input. How we gather information from Calgarians has to change because otherwise we will be building our city on a set of assumptions based on people who look like us. We won’t be building for the diversity of the population that we want to see.

“They were such fascinating interesting people, we still have people who are in our lives, who came to us through our engagement activities, which is kind of cool.”

Throughout the project, the team reinforced their beliefs that good public services are built on strong relationships. The project provided incentives to encourage young people to be involved, including an honorarium, public transit passes, and food at events. But the real incentive has been the opportunity to shape city policies. The data that Moraig has painstakingly synthesised will form the basis of the city’s youth strategy.

Cathie explains,

“For the youth that we have interacted with, the impact has been substantial. The impact on the broader youth in Calgary is yet to be seen. But I think we were really seeking input from youth in a much different way than the city ever has.”

As well as gathering almost 1000 ideas from young people across the city, the team now has a mailing list of people who have a positive relationship with the local government and are keen to be in touch in future.

Moraig says,

“We do have a mailing list and we’ll include them as part of the arts and culture project. It’s not like the city didn’t work with youth before, but I think it’s helped us to see how easy it is and how much they really appreciate being involved.”

For a couple of the young people, the impact has been even greater: they are now working in roles in city government.

Lisa says,

“The project inspired some of the youth who participated to see themselves in a career in public service. I’ve had young people reach out to me, I’m happy to answer questions, direct them or connect them with my networks.”

“Sometimes, we’re so keen on being efficient that we stop thinking about what’s effective.”

One of the biggest things that the team has learned through the project is that, although it takes a little more time to engage properly with communities, it is worth the work. Komal says,

“When we take the extra time, we make the extra effort, it paid off. If we had success, it’s because we made those considerations. We did the harder part of the job and it was so worth it.”

Lisa explains that taking things slowly at the start can actually be more efficient in the long term.

“I’ve been part of a lot of processes when we thought we were being efficient and we’d come up with processes that were then sent back at council because they’re not meeting the needs we thought. Were we really being as efficient as we thought we were?

If we had to go back two or three times, over and over because it’s getting opposition from residents, then we are creating more work and frustrating people. Slowing down a little at the beginning, to have those deeper conversations would have been more efficient really.”

“This is not really a hard thing to do. I honestly don’t know anybody at the city who couldn’t do this, with a bit of guidance.”

There have been some real concrete successes of the programme already. The team has received funding to hire new staff, they are working on a new youth strategy.

The real impact of the Innovation Training Program may not have been seen yet. The team are confident that it has changed the way they will work in future, but also that it will scale beyond them. Kiyoshi says,

“Despite the long hours and the pace of the programme, people were refreshed, people were getting those “a-ha” moments where they realise there is a better way to do work in government. The robustness of this programme is repeatable, people are still coming to us looking for guidance on innovation. And that’s how you scale it, when people start applying these tools in their own work and spreading innovation further and further.”

The group has started applying this new way of working in other areas of their work, suggesting that its effectiveness goes beyond youth work. Komal explains,

“I’ve been using some of the principles of the work corporately and I’m seeing how well they’ve landed. I’m using these methods with different business units and the conversations that we’re having, people are saying “ I can’t believe I get to contribute so meaningfully”.

Moraig sums it up perfectly,

“As much as we all put in 300% more than we needed to, this is not really a hard thing to do. I honestly don’t know anybody at the city who couldn’t do this, with a bit of guidance. We need to do more of this, not just us, but other municipalities, in fact all humans need to do this more often.”

Written by:

Rosie McIntosh Global Director, Storytelling and Communications
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