Let’s Talk Smart Cities: The City of Regina

By Trevor Quan and Mansharn Toor

On September 8, 2021, the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) hosted the fourth in a series of engagement events focused on capturing what smart cities mean for communities across Canada. The event’s participants represented telecommunications companies, post-secondary institutions, industry associations, municipalities, and companies (including both technology and energy monitoring fields), and came from diverse professional backgrounds: research officers, managers, enterprise architects, security analysts, and software developers.

Photo by hstiver on Adobe Stock

Getting Started: Fostering Innovation & Collaboration

After a brief introduction, Nathan Wilson, the Director of Innovation and Collaboration at SaskTel presented on SaskTel’s approach to innovation: identifying and refining patterns over time while placing a high priority on collaboration with the small to medium size enterprises and startups.

Nathan Wilson, Director of Innovation and Collaboration at SaskTel

Through its extensive work with municipalities, SaskTel understands that technology exists to perform almost any task any community could want. The real innovation is in uncovering business and operating models that are manageable for administration. Municipalities can accomplish this and build smart communities by creating an ecosystem of capabilities, collaboration partners, and skills that leverage the power of data, and support sustainable, iterative innovation — solving common municipal challenges that include:

- Optimizing finite budgets

- Improving operational efficiency

- Building capacity and the minimizing impact from staff turnover

- Minimizing the risk and time associated with transformational initiatives

- Improving engagement and gaining support for initiatives

- Reducing carbon footprint

- Citizen safety

SaskTel’s Innovation & Collaboration team has collaborated with thousands of people throughout the province and across the country, including municipalities, First Nations Communities, ministries and Crown corporations, agriculture producers, technology companies, and startups. The team places a high priority on “fostering the collision of ideas, skills, perspectives, and opportunities.” It focuses on “the problem to be solved, versus leading with technology.”

SaskTel Innovation & Collaboration focuses on fostering a strong ecosystem of collaborative partners, bridging SaskTel infrastructure, services, technical and agile development skills with the vertical expertise partners. By focusing on long-term strategic relationships with a strong ecosystem of partners, SaskTel believes municipalities can better support a culture of ongoing innovation, versus expecting transformation through a series of large projects. SaskTel’s philosophy is to encourage interdisciplinary solutions and to provide avenues for digital adoption.

As a Crown corporation and telecommunications provider, SaskTel has also places a great deal of focus on improving connectivity across Saskatchewan.

“I think in Regina we’re pretty fortunate. We’ve got a program that’s connecting fibre to every residence in the city that wants it. So, I think we’ve got fantastic wireline and wireless connectivity available in the city… I’m really proud that SaskTel has deployed fibre or cellular to places that no other carrier in the country is deploying it to.” — Nathan Wilson, Director of Innovation and Collaboration, SaskTel

One way SaskTel supports innovation is addressing the digital divide by investing in the rural broadband and wireless Saskatchewan initiatives. SaskTel’s rural broadband initiative is by partnering with providers to connect “underserved farms, acreages, Indigenous communities, and other hard to serve rural areas.”

Additionally, through Wireless Saskatchewan, SaskTel worked with the Government of Saskatchewan to improve wireless connections by installing 89 macro cell towers and 105 small cell sites across the province over the past two years. Investing in connectivity, for SaskTel, is in-line with creating an ecosystem of cooperation and collaboration, which are themes also echoed by Regina residents.

Smart Regina: Livability, Connectivity, and Sustainability

Figure 2: Jamboard Engagement Slide

To facilitate these discussions and to collect comments from participants, ICTC used Jamboard (a “digital whiteboard”) to help people to organize their thoughts. A selection of these slides is included here to show the range of feedback and commentary from these sessions. ICTC facilitators started these discussions by asking Regina residents, “What is important to building a ‘Smart Regina?’” Participants overwhelming answered, livability and sustainability. Livability requires improved connectivity and data-driven decision-making to build a city that is organized for the benefit of its residents. The concept of livability typically describes matters of policy and community planning but can entail a range of different and sometimes subjective measures. This may entail frameworks that encompass public transport, affordable housing, and open public spaces, while others believe it can include measures of stability, healthcare, environment and infrastructure. Regina residents were most focused on improving the livability and sustainability of their city: improving transportation, increasing energy efficiency, and reducing accessibility barriers in programs and services.

In recent years, Regina has made great strides in sustainability, with a commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Additionally, the city is establishing itself as a testing hub for new technology, as a means to spur innovation. With priorities like agriculture, energy, electrical vehicles, and retail, Regina, is on its way to implementing a smart city strategy that makes it more livable, sustainable, and connected.

Other themes that emerged among participants were innovation and collaboration, infrastructure, mobility, digital citizenship, and the environment. These themes are discussed in more detail below.

Innovation and Collaboration

“We have a great innovation community. We have great startups. We have great research and development.” — Regina resident

Innovation hubs and collaboration-focused initiatives are growing in Regina, as more attention is given to fostering an environment where advancements in technology can be utilized. Regina’s Cultivator was mentioned as a local leader in creating space for innovation:

“We’re really fortunate in Regina to have the cultivator program run by Conexus… which was initiated by Innovation Saskatchewan. They [do] a great job of bringing people together.” — Regina resident

Cultivator has filled a void in Regina’s tech environment by providing a startup hub that is helping grow the tech sector. Since 2019, the incubator has supported over 75 startups, created 304 jobs, and are credited for $12.9 million in revenue’s generated. Cultivator is “Canada’s first credit union-led business incubator, and helps address the gaps and barriers in Saskatchewan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.” The incubator has already supported over 50 startup companies and is recently focused on advancing agriculture and food technology.

Momentum has been growing as Regina’s Retail Innovation Labs Inc. collected $4 million in investments and $3.9 in early-stage investments for the Paradigm Consulting Group since 2018. The city (and province) has set the foundation for an active and vibrant digital economy. As one participant mentioned, there has been an injection of funds in Regina’s tech ecosystem:

“There has certainly been an increase in funding available for municipalities for innovations and different types of businesses” — Regina resident

“[it is] a good time to invest and help make improvements that will give long-term benefit and help spur the near-term economy in doing so. There certainly seems to have been more funding available than there was pre-pandemic.” — Regina resident

In an interview with Regina Leader-Post, Minister of Innovation Saskatchewan Tina Beaudry-Mellor noted similar trends: “Everybody is using tech in some fashion right now and looking at ways to pivot existing business models, and so there’s tremendous, tremendous opportunity for our tech sector.”

Infrastructure — Both Physical and Digital

“The aging of our infrastructure [will result in a] large cost, essentially just to upgrade to allow for smart sensors and smart readers to even link into the grid.” — Regina resident

Cities face enormous difficulty managing tight budgets and simultaneously investing in digital transformation. Yet, cities do need to invest in digital infrastructure. The pandemic has highlighted the need for cities to narrow the digital divide to ensure citizens can stay connected. In our engagement session, Regina residents expressed worry that some groups may fall behind due to unequal access to technology.

“Some kids did not have access to remote learning and the devices needed for [remote schooling].” — Regina resident

One participant commented that a “smart Regina” means “everyone having the same access to internet.” Others identified “connectivity” as a major barrier to access. Digitization and technology’s use in learning and work has made connectivity and data more important. Participants noted that work and learning require sufficient, affordable internet connectivity across the region. Similarly, digital infrastructure and connectivity are equally crucial for the use of sensors and data analytics in city operations. Discussions of data storage and usage also highlighted the need for a robust security and privacy framework for Regina.

Some participants viewed growing misinformation about 5G technology infrastructure as a major hurdle to improving connectivity and urged policy makers to address misinformation. It was mentioned that concerns over possible negative impacts of 5G deployment could be an impediment to further technology deployment and adoption.

Mobility

During these discussions, participants frequently noted challenges and opportunities related to mobility. Current and future smart city developments should address issues of traffic congestion, walkability, bike friendliness, and changing public transportation needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., the associated increase in working from home). It was also noted that greater use of data and sensors in the city can provide better levels of service and improved scheduling of public transit, possibly even leading to what one termed “transit-on-demand.”

Figure 3: Jamboard Digital Engagement Slide

The Digital Citizen

While there was great interest in new opportunities provided by digital technologies, it was clear that local citizens were also focused on the core operations of the municipal government and how they deliver programs. Participants highlighted the need to address financial pressures and to ensure that the City of Regina is flexible enough to meet the changing needs and expectations of local citizens. Related to the need to be financially sustainable, there was also interest in transparency and building trust in municipal operations:

“The city council meetings are more accessible because they’re all online and you can phone in to be a delegation. And I think that helps with some of the voices but still doesn’t catch a lot of the underrepresented groups, voices that don’t have that technology to even access that.” — Regina resident

The shift to the virtual world also presented new opportunities to strengthen community. As one respondent mentioned, the pandemic helped residents feel more connected and engaged:

“I think one of the opportunities that came along with remote work, though, was the ability to connect more broadly. [The pandemic] reduced the need for travel, and you can engage [with] more partners.” — Regina resident

Regina’s residents noted a priority for smart technologies that would empower communities and cities to improve service delivery. Indeed, residents said that the use of digital technologies could bring significant benefits and improvements to connecting with community and tailoring service delivery.

Environment

Many participants associated smart city developments with addressing environmental challenges. Residents pointed to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and improving efficiency as the main drivers for smart city technology adoption. For example, it was noted that new technologies and the use of data could lead to reduced GHG emissions, improved energy efficiency, and better water management. As one respondent wrote:

“My observation is that it’s about capturing information to bring together people, services, community assets in order to help community leaders address city challenges (economic, social, and environmental) in a sustainable manner.”

Sustainability is a major priority for Regina. In June of 2020, council set out details to meet the city’s goal of shifting to 100% renewable energy sources by 2050. This also overlaps with mobility concerns as Regina looks for alternatives to private automobile use (whether walking, biking, or public transit use). From improving safety on roads and addressing traffic and transportation issues to more affordable housing, the municipality is focused on, “using data to design new communities” to make them smarter and more sustainable.

Closing Thoughts

During this community engagement event, ICTC learned about the strength of the tech and innovation ecosystem in Saskatchewan and how stakeholders viewed both the opportunities and challenges of these developments. Participants highlighted the need for collaboration and integrated (rather than siloed) approaches to technology use in smart city operations. It was noted that the use of sensors and data analytics in municipal infrastructure can provide a better understanding of citizen needs while also helping to address environmental concerns. As seen in other municipalities, physical and digital infrastructure remains top of mind as Canadians navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. The transition to digitized service delivery has opened new opportunities for citizen engagement, but it has also surfaced challenges for those who are unable to navigate these changes.

While there was great optimism for the potential of improving municipal services through new technologies, participants also noted the need for transparency and fiscal sustainability of core municipal functions and programs when considering new technology deployment.

As a final thought, Regina is keen to be the agricultural hub of Canada, and this aspiration is being supported by investments in research, development, innovation, and the labour force. Regina’s collaborative incubator environment has injected excitement into the city’s tech sector, which has some saying it is a “game-changer for Regina.”

Trevor Quan is a Senior Research and Policy Analyst at the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). Trevor has worked for over a decade in the technology and innovation sector with a focus on public policy development. He has authored numerous reports that examine the intersection of government strategy and the development of technology clusters. Trevor has presented at provincial and national conferences on topics such as government strategy, AI ethics, education technology, labour market impacts, and the gig economy. He is particularly interested in the areas of algorithmic bias, economic inequality, and the impacts of digital technology on personal privacy.
Mansharn Toor (she/her) is a Research and Policy Analyst at the Digital Think Tank by ICTC. Mansharn brings her background in political science and social justice to her research on the impact of emerging technologies, labour market trends, and tech equity. Mansharn previously worked with various Indigenous communities in Alberta to develop community strategic plans based on community-led research and evidenced-based decision-making. She has a particular passion for the intersections of technology and policy to help address social inequities. Mansharn earned an MA in Political Science from the University of Alberta.

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