Disrupting Toronto. For Real.

Let’s apply the benefits of disruption to something that affects everyone’s everyday life: their city.

William Chan recently wrote up his thoughts of coming back to spend time at his employer, Google, after a stint in the US Digital Services. While he wrote of a sense of comfort coming back to all the perks of the Googleplex and hanging out with like-minded individuals working on new tech, the question that seemed to really be in the back of his mind was whether any of this was really important.

I have to admit I think about these kind of things once in a while and while I’m not going to go all Chris McCandless and give it all up, I do think it’s important for all of us to think about the work we do especially in tech which has such a transformative impact on society and people’s actual wellbeing. It’s quite hard to believe but the first iPhone was launched only eight years ago. Since then, the app economy has birthed all sorts of transformative services and behaviors that weren’t previously thought possible or scalable. Imagine in just a span of eight years how much our lives have changed with technology. Now imagine if that type of impact was focused less on the use cases of the better off and more on the worst off.

That’s why I get excited when I hear about initiatives like Google’s Sidewalk Labs. While I don’t necessary think they’re going about it completely in the right way, I am fully behind their objective — to make life in the city better. I’ve lived in a lot of big cities; from London to New York and Toronto to Kuala Lumpur — I’ve seen the type of life that the well-off enjoy but I’ve also seen the struggles of the inner cities and the not so great parts. Change comes to these parts very slowly and my hometown of Toronto is no exception.

Life in a typical city like Toronto is death by a thousand cuts. The little bug bears of dealing with public services and transportation won’t kill you but they will certainly sap your soul over time and we all just put up with it because we’ve all accepted that change won’t be coming any time soon. A big reason is that the municipal government is a grinding slow bureaucracy that still operates like it has operated fifty years ago. The whole disruption that has swept the for-profit sector has completely missed the public sector by and large. While companies have had to adapt to survive or risk going out of business — the government at all levels has never had that type of survival impetus driving them reinvent themselves. Some cities like London have made admirable steps to make a change but a lot of it tends to be more PR led then true product led.

Usually when a municipal government announces a digital or tech initiative it’s more about the PR to show that they’re not completely sitting on their hands but it tends to be very superficial. A partnership fund or a few hackathon events tends to cover the majority of these announcements. In most cases it’s about stroking egos (both the cities and the stakeholders). When you develop a product, you always start with the customer not the ego. This means finding out the real problems and pain points and building a solution around that. It’s also about being small and nimble these days, not lumbering and slow. Imagine the things we can do with technologies at our disposal today. Imagine if the city operated like Amazon — small distributed teams all across the whole city with ownership of services and platforms pushed down to the individual teams and a strong devops environment that allowed for continuous deployments. Imagine if all those services and platforms were built from the ground up to connect with each other and authorized 3rd parties (with appropriate security controls).

Can you imagine the type of experiences a typical Torontonian would have in their average day, living in a city that had that kind of engine of development driving behind the scenes? I can and I get excited about the possibilities when I do. Which is why if Toronto ever gets behind something like this, I’ll be the first in line to pitch in.

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