Closed routine or open innovation?

January 22, 2009 at 3:16 pm | In green, innovation, silo_think, victoria | 5 Comments

While there’s much to be said for routine and regular habits, there are other times that require smashing the status quo.

I went to City Hall this morning, expecting to participate in a workshop/ presentation by city staff on the implications of BC’s Bill 27 on revenue earned by the city through DCCs (Development Cost Charges). DCCs are levied on developers to pay for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades, and Bill 27 allows municipalities to waive DCCs under certain conditions, specifically for projects that are “green” or socially relevant (affordable housing, for example). Bill 27 sets out to reward municipalities financially (with additional funding for infrastructure) if they achieve green or social goals.

Since council was running overtime because of lengthier-than-expected discussion of prior agenda items, the 11:00 a.m. workshop was delayed and delayed, …until I finally left shortly after noon because it seemed that all the key personnel that should be involved had somehow disappeared after calling an “in camera” meeting. I did come away with a ~60-page consultants’ report, “Development Cost Charges: Implications of Bill 27; Discussion Paper,” by Urban Systems (a Richmond BC firm). Skimming through their report, I gathered that the bottom line – which must have been derived at least in part from interviewing city staff – was: no impact, negligible impact, unimportant impact, do nothing, do the same old thing you were doing already.

I’d be understating if I said that I find those conclusions disappointing. I had an opportunity to leaf through the report with two friends who also came for the workshop (but left, as I did). As one of them put it, the report confirms the present modus operandus of staff, rooted in traditional approaches. For example, it might be the case that traditionally a city – any city – plans for X-amount of waste-water infrastructure based on projected population growth, and that it then budgets DCC revenue to meet those growth expectations. In that scenario, any reduction of DCCs is negative.

We could say that in the current climate (literally) of having to think differently and more flexibly, that’s the wrong approach. We could instead say that we need to meet a certain infrastructure target (determined on the basis of best environmental practices in waste-water management, on-site sewage treatment, and so forth – all of which, combined, actually take a load off the existing infrastructure, versus adding to it, even with additional population growth factored in), and then ask: “How do we best get there?” By waiving DCCs for those developments? Sure, and some of that is already in the existing laws. But additionally you want to create incentives for developers to go that route – so perhaps you have to create tax structures that pave your path to said goal.

The reason this is so crucial at this point is because British Columbia’s Bill 27 (followed up by Bill 44, “Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets Act”) is designed to reward those municipalities that achieve green targets by giving them more infrastructure funds, which in turn give cities the resources to enhance livability.

In other words, the province has created a state where municipalities can compete for infrastructure funding, receiving more if they show that they’re more green and socially responsible. While some municipalities might take this new incentive and run, run, run with it, Victoria is standing at the starting gate wondering what all the fuss is about. I almost get the impression we’re deciding to sit this one out.

It’s easy enough to understand the attitude, I suppose. After yesterday’s UDI luncheon and my “d’oh!” insight into the reactive nature of codes – building codes, but also all the codes related to infrastructure, too – I’m not surprised at how difficult it is to get an innovative spirit into any of this. As one of my friends put it, if you want to allow composting toilets, for example, you will generate many many many pages of changes to The Code, because at each micro-stage of implementation, there’s some kind of repercussion that has to be dealt with on yet another page of the Code Book.

And cities with constrained budgets will (justifiably) point out that they don’t have the resources – people and money – to look into all those changes.

So what’s the answer? The only thing I can think of is to crowdsource and open-source government. Imagine, if you will, if you put something like the building code or the codes around waste-water management online, like a wiki, and got people to run with it. There are experts – builders, plumbers, etc. – everywhere who, because of years of experience of working in the field, have micro-solutions to just about every problem, if you allow their disparate bits of expertise to aggregate. There are immigrants from countries where green building practices or green infrastructure solutions are further along than here, who could contribute. There is a huge pool of ideas and intelligence out there, distributed across the population. We need to tap into that.

But at present, city governments work from the premise of absence: no money, no staff, no resources. Meanwhile, there’s an abundance right outside the door, but it’s not captured or allowed in. And so we keep doing the same old things in the same old way, budgeting for the same old approaches, disregarding the slow-moving train wreck that our economy and city is shaping up to be.

5 Comments

  1. Where-ever there’s a problem, there is an opportunity, and I think you’ve identified that well. What the city needs to do is take a step back and look at what the community could to for itself, and provide the means to facilitate that, either by community wiki or some other form.

    Sounds like a frustrating morning!

    Comment by Davin Greenwell — January 22, 2009 #

  2. “So what’s the answer? The only thing I can think of is to crowdsource and open-source government. Imagine, if you will, if you put something like the building code or the codes around waste-water management online, like a wiki, and got people to run with it. There are experts – builders, plumbers, etc. – everywhere who, because of years of experience of working in the field, have micro-solutions to just about every problem, if you allow their disparate bits of expertise to aggregate. There are immigrants from countries where green building practices or green infrastructure solutions are further along than here, who could contribute. There is a huge pool of ideas and intelligence out there, distributed across the population. We need to tap into that.”

    YES – FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, YES! It worked really well as a tool for collaborative climate action planning for Common Energy. It can and should be implemented this way.

    Comment by Naomi — January 22, 2009 #

  3. I was there with Yule and was baffled by the undeclared cancellation. No wonder City Hall workshops have such dismal attendance.

    It’s going to take some leadership to achieve the level of community input we’re seeking. This is miles ahead of what the City is capable of doing now.

    Comment by robert randall — January 23, 2009 #

  4. Yes! I agree with Naomi. There is no reason why we cannot open up government to the expertise that exists in this community. Replace old-school ‘consultations’ such as through survey monkey and city hall workshops, with a wiki -throw a real policy and a real program open to the community to work on, tapping into the amazing wealth of talent in Victoria. Many on this council committed to both upgrading it’s use of IT and a new commitment to citizen engagement. Perhaps a formal presentation to council is in the near future?

    Comment by Nicole Chaland — January 23, 2009 #

  5. Thanks for the comments, Davin, Naomi, Rob, and Nicole! The “open-sourcing government” idea seems really to resonate – let’s hope it doesn’t take Victoria multiple generations to get there.

    As it happens, MIT Technology Review published an article just the other day (1/28), Wiki Your Town Council – A new effort seeks a database on all U.S. elected officials, by David Talbot, that’s right up the alley we’re talking about.

    Incredibly (to my mind) it was started by Newt Gingrich (he’s not the first person I associate with open government, but maybe his sister’s influence on him has been beneficial? 😉 ).

    Comment by Yule — January 29, 2009 #

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