- Published: 17 August 2023
Trevor Hurst is a dynamic leader in IT with an extensive 30-year career spanning private sectors, regulated utilities, and the energy sector in Western Canada. Having spent the last 15 years in provincial and local government roles, he currently serves as the Executive Chief Information Officer for Saanich, British Columbia. Hurst’s mission is to transform Saanich into a smart city, address housing and environmental issues, and enhance the residents’ quality of life.
In an Interview with CIO Review Canada magazine, Hurst shares his insights on the challenges and emerging trends in the Canadian smart city space and the experience he has gathered in the domain.
Q: Could you elaborate on the current state of smart city initiatives in Canada and how they have evolved over time?
The concept of smart cities has been in discussion for quite some time. Many of the essential technological components that contribute to the development of such cities primarily rely on cloud-based solutions. In British Columbia, however, the existing privacy laws were somewhat restrictive for the public sector’s adoption of cloud technologies, especially those hosted outside of the province or the country. The advent of COVID-19 prompted the government to implement emergency legislation that relaxed some of these restrictions, leading to a surge in demand for digital solutions. Local governments are now swiftly rising to meet the demand while also diligently working to secure the appropriate funding.
Q: What would you say are some of the major challenges the smart city space is currently facing? Are there any recent trends or approaches that are effectively addressing these challenges?
The primary issue faced by the smart city industry is talent acquisition. It has always been a challenge to find skilled IT personnel, and this has intensified recently. Another major hurdle is change fatigue. Despite constant adjustments and process updates, organizations, especially local governments, are overwhelmed with manual tasks like permit obligations. Attempts to digitize these processes further burden the already fatigued staff. While funding and technological readiness are no longer significant barriers, managing people and their capacity for change remains a considerable challenge. To combat these challenges, investments in training have significantly increased. There’s an emphasis on training in basic skills like using Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, OneDrive, and more specialized skills like workflow management using tools like ServiceNow. We teach staff how to model business processes, set up workflows, and develop applications in low-code environments to increase efficiency and reduce dependency on specialized IT teams for everyday tasks.
When it comes to British Columbia, one major challenge we currently face is a housing crisis with a high demand for affordable homes, especially for individuals aged 21 to 40. To meet this, nearly 50,000 new homes are needed across the province every year. To put that in perspective, it is similar to building an entirely new city each year, and that is just to meet future demand, without even addressing the current backlog. With a 1 percent vacancy rate, escalating rents, and spiraling housing costs, we are facing environmental and economic problems.
To address this issue, we are focusing on becoming an intelligent city, using digital technology to solve the housing crisis. A smart city makes data-driven decisions from various sources, which aids in determining the type, location, and design of housing. Advanced technologies help us streamline our planning and permit system. Currently, the process of applying for a building permit or zoning changes involves significant manual back-end processing with limited interaction between developers or citizens and the process itself. This results in considerable delays. To rectify this, we leverage the latest AI-driven tools to automate the initial application review process. This would include checking if the application is complete, complies with zoning bylaws, and meets building code regulations.
Q: How do you envision the future of the smart city in British Columbia?
In the next 3 to 5 years, I foresee various changes. There will be new tools promoting real-time collaboration between citizens, staff, and councilors, enhancing public participation. We will also leverage data and automation tools to expedite innovative policy decisions, including permit processes.
There’s an exciting project underway called E-Comm 911, aimed at revamping the entire 911 system in British Columbia over the next three to five years. This will not only further improve dispatch times but also tap into data during emergencies to possibly prevent them from happening. The idea is to create a real-time, self-learning traffic and emergency system that responds to danger zones. For instance, if a particular intersection is identified as a high-risk area at certain times, this data can be fed into our traffic network to automatically adjust lights and pedestrian crossing times, enhancing public safety.
In terms of our workforce, we’ll continue progressing towards a completely mobile workforce, going beyond the traditional nine-to-five, cubicle-based work model. By providing staff with digital tools that enable real-time interaction with citizens, we can offer greater flexibility. This shift will influence personal safety and lifestyle choices, including living arrangements and work hours, ultimately enhancing work-life balance.
Many tech-specific improvements are also on the horizon. In the next few years, we anticipate conducting our last server and perhaps even desktop refresh, as we fully transition towards managed cloud services. We’ll likely begin considering employee-provided devices, where staff members use their preferred devices, and we provide a secure corporate data bubble on these machines. Instead of the IT department managing these devices, we may simply compensate employees monthly for their device usage. This approach could significantly reduce our infrastructure and staff requirements
Q: Can you share a piece of advice for your industry peers based on your experience and journey?
I would say, understand your customers’ business thoroughly. The boundary between business and technology is blurring, making IT a strategic business partner. IT leaders need to understand their role as catalysts for digital transformation. Along with technological advancements, never underestimate the importance of culture. An innovative, risk-tolerant IT culture is a potent tool for innovation. Empower your team to take the initiative, solve problems proactively, and assure them that you’ll support them even when things go wrong.
Another piece of advice would be to embrace failure as an essential part of innovation. The idea of failure as a detrimental factor needs to change, especially in IT. It is more important to fail fast, early, and in controlled circumstances, allowing us to learn and improve rapidly.
The traditional, long cycle ‘waterfall’ design approach can’t keep pace with the world’s rapid changes. Instead, adopting shorter sprints and embracing iterative designs is crucial. Fostering a culture of innovation, promoting partnerships, and putting ‘digital first’ can make a big difference in the IT landscape. It’s time we blur the lines between IT and business.
Quelle/Source: CIO Review, 10.08.2023