Civic Hall Toronto’s First Quarter: Sharing, Learning, Collaborating

Program manager Shea Sinnott reflects on Civic Hall Toronto’s first quarter and previews what’s in store for the program this fall.

From left: Toronto city councillor Paul Ainslie, Civic Hall Toronto Program Manager Shea Sinnott, Toronto’s Manager of Entrepreneurship Services Chris Rickett, Code for Canada Executive Director Gabe Sawhney, Toronto’s Executive Director of Municipal Licensing and Standards Tracey Cook and Centre for Social Innovation Toronto Director Adil Dhalla pose at the launch of Civic Hall Toronto.

It’s been about four months since the launch of Civic Hall Toronto, and we’ve been working hard to create a program where government innovators, entrepreneurs, technologists and residents can connect, learn from each other, and work together on civic challenges.

Civic Hall Toronto grew out of a desire to unite people from different sectors who want to use technology and design for the common good. Our vision is to create a home for civic innovation in the greater Toronto area by offering programming that builds capacity for the government and the public to collaborate on projects that make our cities better.

To that end, here’s what we’ve been up to:

  • With help from our partners at the City of Toronto’s Economic Development & Culture division, we signed up nine members from the City of Toronto, as well as the Toronto Police Service and a team from the City of Markham (you can see the full list of 11 members here).
  • Along with our partners at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI), we’ve onboarded and welcomed all these teams to the collaboration space at CSI Spadina.
  • We connected further with our partners at Civic Hall in New York City during their annual Personal Democracy Forum conference (I wrote about what I learned here).
  • We’ve run workshops on Digital Government & Civic Tech and Human-Centered Design and these have sparked inspiring conversations amongst our government members regarding what they can do day-by-day to lead digital transformation in the public sector.
  • We’ve hosted several events for members, including innovation in hiring, service design, and design sprints, and held networking events with social innovators at CSI.
  • We’ve talked with lots and lots of people — like civic hackers from the Civic Tech Toronto community, entrepreneurs, policy makers and innovators, and non-profit leaders — about how to design programming that will meets their needs (see below for where we’ve landed).
Civic Hall Toronto officially launched on May 10, 2018 alongside our partners at the City of Toronto, the Centre for Social Innovation, and the original Civic Hall in NYC.

Government + Community

We’ve started by asking government innovators to be our first members, recruiting government teams to sign up for an annual membership in return for a suite of programming, including events, training, access to the collaboration space, and custom project support.

By government innovators, we mean public servants who are excited to use innovative digital tools and processes to improve their work and better meet residents’ needs.

People like Safiah Chowdhury and Clara Ganemtoré of the City of Toronto’s Employment and Social Services division, who spoke at our event on June 27 about the amazing results they’ve produced by integrating human-centered design processes into their work.

Or Carolyn Taylor of Street ARToronto (StART), one of Civic Hall Toronto’s first members, who has worked tirelessly with her team to digitize StART’s internal systems and programming in order to better support local art and artists, and who is scaling this work at Civic Hall Toronto.

City of Toronto staff Clara Ganemtoré, Safiah Chowdhury, and Program Manager Shea Sinnott at Civic Hall Toronto’s June 27 lunch and learn event.

Government innovators are just one group in Toronto’s civic innovation landscape. When we launched Civic Hall Toronto, we hadn’t decided on a model for “community membership”, because we wanted to better understand what we could offer that would be most useful.

We started our recruitment with government teams because we had identified clear needs and concrete ways to deliver programming (events, training, project support, space) that met these needs. And we knew that our goal of cross-sector collaboration wouldn’t work–or scale–if government wasn’t at the table from the start.

We also want to engage entrepreneurs, technologists, and residents in our work. In May, we set about designing community programming by having conversations with people and asking them: What are you working on? What are you struggling with? How might programming at Civic Hall Toronto support you in your work and create opportunities in the civic innovation scene?

We soon discovered that creating a parallel “community membership” wasn’t the right model, as it didn’t align with community feedback. Instead, we think that offering opportunities to attend free or inexpensive events was a better format for community to take part in the program in the short term.

We also heard a few common challenges from potential community members:

  1. Civic tech, as a sector and a movement, is not a widely understood, in part because civic tech practitioners don’t tell their stories often or particularly well. As one person told us, “Civic tech is good at doing things but we have a problem talking about ourselves” or as another put it bluntly, “I’m a nerd, not a communications specialist”.
  2. There’s a lack of connection: Civic innovators both inside and outside government don’t communicate enough with each other. As we heard, “What we need is personal contact with people [in government] in order to have a dialogue”. And one question we heard posed in numerous ways was: “If I’m working on something that can help the government or be used by the government or can scale in partnership with the government, how do I go about that?” There’s a clear need for mediators who can connect stakeholders in government to civic tech, or support civic tech advocates in navigating government bureaucracy.
  3. There’s a lack of capacity: There are a lot of skilled people who want to contribute to civic tech and civic innovation in Toronto, but they’re often working on projects as volunteers. Civic tech practitioners need more resources, energy, and training to scale and make an impact.
  4. There’s a lack of funding and investment: Civic technologists are often working off the side of their desks, or on under-funded projects, and investors and philanthropists in Canada haven’t yet begun supporting civic tech and govtech initiatives here.

In very simple post-it-note terms (!), here’s how Civic Hall Toronto can contribute to addressing these challenges: tell stories and amplify voices; create connections; build capacity; attract funding.

A lot of post-its were used in this course of this process, but helped us land on the four ways Civic Hall Toronto can support community-led civic tech projects: telling and amplifying their stories, connecting them with each other and with government innovators, building greater civic tech capacity in Toronto, and creating opportunities for paid civic tech work in the city.

This fall, we’re focusing on creating connections by coordinating events and projects that bring people together.

  • Our “Office Hours” will be opportunities for community to drop in to speak with people that work in the public service. One staff member from each of our government member teams will be present to answer questions, or connect participants to those that can. These will happen once or twice a month at CSI Spadina and are open to the public. Please join our first Office Hours on September 28!
  • Our networking events will be opportunities to connect with change-makers in the wider civic innovation scene. We’re teaming up with CSI to host an edition of Six Degrees of Social Innovation on October 9 to convene people working hard to find new ways to solve our collective challenges. And we’re planning a Civic Tech Show-and-Tell later in November (details to come!) where we’ll showcase examples of civic tech from government innovators, entrepreneurs, and civic hackers.

Over the next few months, we’ll build momentum with our community programming — by holding events that connect people inside and outside government, and by engaging the civic tech community to share their expertise with our 11 government members.

In so doing, we’ll continue to test our assumptions about how to add value to the big, broad, vibrant landscape of local civic innovation.

How to get involved

If you work in the public service, you can join Civic Hall Toronto as a team, or as an individual for trainings or events. Learn more about becoming a member on our website, or email me at shea@codefor.ca if you have questions.

If you work in the private sector, in a startup, in a non-profit, in academia, or simply care about civic innovation, you can take part in Civic Hall Toronto by attending an upcoming event. Check out our full events calendar, and if you have an idea for an event, please reach out to tell me more!