City of Calgary - Civic Innovation Lab: Smart Cities Made Human

In 2017, the Federal Government announced a funding opportunity for municipalities related to Smart Cities. As our municipality considered a bid, the dominant question being asked was: What can technology offer the city? Our internal client approached the innovation lab and asked a more difficult question that framed the challenge for this project: How could we ensure we were thinking about not just a technology and data-enabled city, but also a smart city that worked for people?

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In 2017, the Federal Government announced a funding opportunity for municipalities related to Smart Cities. As our municipality considered a bid, the dominant question being asked was: What can technology offer the city? An internal client approached our innovation lab and asked a more difficult question that framed the challenge for this project: How could we ensure we were thinking about not just a technology and data-enabled city, but also a smart city that worked for people?

“The city is its people. We don’t make cities in order to make buildings and infrastructure. We make cities in order to come together, to create wealth, culture, more people. As social animals, we create the city to be with other people, to work, live, play. Buildings, vehicles, and infrastructure are mere enablers, not drivers. They are a side-effect, a by-product, of people and culture. Of choosing the city.”
- Dan Hill, City of Sound, 2013

To understand that shift, we considered this question: Why do we build cities? What is their core purpose?

In our context, the Smart Cities discussion primarily focused on outcomes such as efficiency through technology. Our internal client challenged our team to help the municipal government understand how we might reconcile the city’s core reason for being (bringing
people together to have a good life) against the changes technology can initiate.


For our team, exploring this challenge meant applying traditional and non-traditional service design methodologies including advanced analytics, strategic foresight and human-centered design approaches to the problem. We named this sprint “Dark Matter,” and its objectives were:

  • Demonstrate what can be achieved when a service design mindset is brought into government.
  • Leverage insights from human-centered and digital data sources to understand trends, opportunities and develop future scenarios.
  • Work with internal and external stakeholders to design immersive experiments to bring those future scenarios to life.
  • Develop and deepen formal and informal channels for staff to work cross-corporately, partner with the community, and take smart
  • Produce an artifact that captured the insights generated through this work. This took the form of a Smart Cities, Made Human playbook and a narrative showcasing the city’s ability to think and work in a new way.


The target audiences for our work included civil servants at the municipal level, civic institutions, universities, community agencies, and the residents of our city.

Process / Approach

As an innovation lab situated directly inside of government, we face unique structural challenges and opportunities that directly impact the process of our work. In a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), government systems are challenged to adapt. At the same time, these stresses serve to entrench long-standing activities like procurement, citizen engagement, and risk assessment.

These structures limit not only potential action on emerging trends and ideas, but even their consideration. To accommodate these unique
challenges our team has adapted and modified best practices from the service design, experience design, and human-centered design fields.

To tell this story, we have chosen to describe our process using an adapted version of a typical human-centered design process. The context of each stage is where we feel an innovative approach was taken.

Challenge: Technology is the answer to what question?
A cross-department conversation around the role of so-called “Smart Cities” technology in the municipal context was gaining momentum in our organization. Stakeholders were asking: What can technology do for the city?

Discover: Crowdsourcing as a source of signals, trends, and opportunities in the Dark Matter
Our innovation lab maintains an ongoing engagement with citizens using a digital platform in addition to regularly convening in-person workshops in our lab. The platform is an open forum for the discussion and exploration of ideas. We have used it to ask questions related to a specific technical challenge and for more open-ended topics. The platform is available both as an internal government forum for staff and as an externally facing tool for dialogue. It currently has more than 4400 users both internal and external sites. Across 10 topic areas, we have collected more than 600 ideas, 2500 comments and 14000 votes in the last 18 months.

The platform was initially conceived of as an “ideas to action” crowdsourcing tool, which has proven problematic. Looking at one idea as a singular solution to complex challenges can have significant systemic impacts on the broader system. Further, as many in the service design field know, simply opening the floodgate and saying “give us your ideas” is not enough to actually trigger change, action or improvement in the context of a complex, risk-averse municipal government.

In response to that limitation, our team has “flipped the funnel” on traditional strategic planning and crowdsourcing. We used this digital archive of information as a live feed of weak signals, sentiment and data, out of which we could identify areas of opportunity. With this approach, we began developing what came to be called “Opportunity Reports.” They included an explanation of the data analytics that lead to each opportunity developed by clustering groups of ideas around themes and then outlined a brief scenario. The idea was to find value in the totality of the dataset, not just individual pieces. We validated this strategic synthesis with an advisory of staff representing more than 37 business units within the municipal corporation, as well as with our corporate leadership teams and external partners.

As the Opportunity Reports were developed we identified signals that suggested possible alignment of that work with the Smart Cities conversation that was emerging corporately. Some example included:

  • The appetite for a conversation about Building Information Technology + unconventional allies (eventually to become an experiment with the Fire Department around virtual reality technology - #BIM+FIRE+VR);
  • The possibility of unlocking areas of the city as a living labs (creating a drone fly zone & citizen scientists - #DroneFlyZone, #IBeaconLivingLabSidewalk);
  • More mainstream smart city areas of inquiry like Blockchain technology as a tool for volunteer engagement - #BlockCoffee.

The process of gathering these insights through transparent data collection, framing them by applying different lenses and then testing those lenses with subject matter experts resulted in the creation of NEW PERMISSION SPACE that would become the foundation of our more radical, experiential prototypes.

Reframe: We have to stop talking about the future and find a way to experience it.
The work to explore emerging opportunities revealed by our crowdsourcing dialogues in parallel with the rising smart cities discourse internally in our government was further catalyzed by the question posed by our internal client: How could we ensure we were thinking about not just a technology and data-enabled city, but also a smart city that worked for people?

For our team, exploring this problem next meant applying strategic foresight and human-centered design approaches in a two-month sprint. We saw this as an opportunity to tangibly demonstrate what can be achieved when a design mindset is brought into government context. This involved beginning the work as a team without necessarily knowing the end product - which required asking our client and
our leaders to open permission space and think in new ways. It required adapting traditional corporate approaches to project management to be more flexible, responsive to emergent opportunities and able to find unexpected patterns.

To help crack open the permission space we needed we crafted a pitch for our leaders that painted a picture of the challenge we were being asked to explore and the opportunity it presented for government to work with residents of the city and the whole of the city in a new and more experimental way. The pitch was part ad campaign through a mocked-up website, and part project plan. The pitch demonstrated a theory of change about how an expanded permission space within municipal government would produce novel outcomes.

Ideate & Prototype: Creating a menu of experiments and testing them
With our challenge question in front of us and the permission space from our leadership to explore new ways of working, we were ready to test possible future scenarios against the question “How could we ensure we were thinking about not just a technology and data-enabled city, but also a smart city that worked for people?”

To develop these scenarios, we looked to our previous work developing “Opportunity Reports” (a synthesis of crowdsourcing data that looked for data trends to imagine big opportunities) and combined these signals with topics starting to bubble up in conversations emerging in workshops in our lab as well as in mainstream and niche media sources. Through these different data points we came up with an initial list of experiments that responded to the opportunities we saw emerging at the edge of our understanding of Smart Cities that seemed to have the most potential for human impact and experimental insights.

Framing an opportunity and creating a scenario is one challenge. Actually moving it into something that can be tested changes it further. In our practice, experience design and rapid prototyping can offer strategic value along with service design value. But what makes a good experiment? A good experiment depends on the context. For this project it seemed to be one that: pushed our skills (learn just enough to use a new technology), challenged us to bring together partners (crafting an invitation), stayed scrappy enough that the thing can fail (too perfect and you lose the chance to collect data about the challenge and the opportunity) and asked a probing question about a possible future. Some examples included:

REFINE: Capturing the wisdom and sharing it out.
As stated, our goal was to design experiments to help understand what these futures could mean for the people who would be impacted by them. A full capture of all of the experiments and the insights they generated can be found on the project website and in the final deliverable artifact - The Smart Cities Made Human Playbook (attached as our visual portion of the submission).

This document was published and distributed to as many stakeholders involved in the Smart Cities discussion as possible including our City Council, senior leaders, and leaders in the community.

The Smart City “Plays”:

  • Design engagement around immersive and tangible experiences.
  • Make your tests small and scrappy - unlock the living labs you have.
  • Cultivate a city filled with everyday delights.
  • Coordinate initiatives with a common purpose.
  • Prioritize experience over efficiency.
  • Grow communities, networks & relationships as part of the learning journey.

We encourage you to explore the Playbook to learn how we uncovered not just insights about applying tech to problems, but about how that tech can support or undermine the culture of a team. These insights are further explored in the impact section.


Why does this work matter, and for who?
Municipalities are racing to demonstrate how their technology, data access and fibre networks make them more connected, livable and sustainable. This makes sense because in part a city is made up of infrastructure, green spaces, transit systems, roadways and pathways and more. But is also fundamentally shaped by the people who live in it. The way people experience these systems is not universal. For example, different people will respond to sensor-enabled traffic systems in different ways.

Understanding how to document, prioritize and advocate for individual human experiences at the nexus of networked technology, data and urbanism is the challenge of our generation. Embracing this complexity and designing responsive systems, policies and governance around people is key. Without a human experience focus, a smart city cannot be people-centered.

In capturing these experiments, we learned that public institutions everywhere must develop new models for prioritizing the human experience and citizen quality of life in every decision. We need new models for collecting data and evaluating the impact on the public life of a city. This means going beyond iterative change (from sensor network to increasingly sophisticated technology solution) and creating transitional solutions that ensure the exploration of Smart Cities includes a lens that is human, ambitious, and transformative.

These learnings correlate with broader data on quality of life collected in our city. In 2017 as part of a “Vital Signs” report, 79% of respondents replied ‘relationships’ were of most importance to them in city life, demonstrating that above all else, residents value connection to one another, building community, and feeling that they belong. Our city also conducts a Quality of Life Citizen Satisfaction Survey each year.

The 2018 Survey revealed that 60% of respondents would like to see increased investment in social services for individuals. Providing investment in our social services, including increased access to information and services available to citizens, is a significant result from this extensive community engagement. It supports the hypothesis that connecting investments in technology infrastructure to the human story and a broader lens of well being is a critical element in building a city that is inclusive for all.

This project had significant impacts on our organization as well. Through cracking open the permission space to work with the community in a new way; re-framing traditional project management approaches with a service design, iterative approach; and being open to taking on risk and experiments that may “fail” - this work has been fundamental in shifting the mindsets of our own institution, colleagues and
leaders to incorporate more human-centered impacts. There were also demonstrated impacts of mindset shift in the stakeholders who were part of these experiments. These shifts were evident not only the viewpoints of our colleagues and other civil servants who participated in the experiments, but also in citizens and community stakeholders.

The stories below are direct quotes collected during the experiments. They highlight how adaptive processes can result in participants’ perspectives being shifted to new ways of thinking, and seeing the world through others’ eyes.

Experiment: FIRE+BIM+VR
“Every scenario is unique — you have to really think about that. In lots of workplaces process is really linear but this work is so dynamic, no day is ever the same, no call is the same. The biggest danger is to assume — so we have to rely on teamwork — assessing a situation together and problem-solving. We don’t work alone. We need to be “seeing” the same picture” - A firefighter reflecting on the limitations of Virtual Reality headsets and their impact to team culture after testing them in the back of a truck en route to a call.

“You could explore tough scenarios that are harder to create in training environments. But there is no substitute for hands-on in person training. While you are getting dressed you are trying to calm your mind. You’re taking information from dispatch and “painting a mental picture” — but you have to be prepared for that picture to be totally different.” - A firefighter reflecting on how the space to reflect and prepare mentally for what may come is a critical part of the work.

Experiment: DRONE FLY ZONE
“They are louder than I expected” “I feel better that these are licensed pilots — if kids were flying it would be a different story” “Drones could be annoying if someone was enjoying a quiet nature walk.” “Separate drone areas might be better to minimize disagreements between drone users and other public enjoyment.”

Comments and insights collected from the more than 100 citizens who participated in the drone fly zone experiment. Many arrived as drone enthusiasts and left with a different picture of how drones might impact public life.

Experiment: COZY CITY
“We need to have conversations with the City that are closer than at arm’s length” “As a group (of residents) we struggle to create community feelings in our City” “Public spaces are the city’s living room”

Comments and insights collected from the more than 40 people who attended the cozy city campfire experiment. The media picked up on the event and sent a camera crew to document the gathering. The conversation was so rich that the reporter put down his recorder, grabbed a chair and joined the discussion for an hour.


We set out to understand “How could we ensure we were thinking about not just a technology and data-enabled city, but also a smart city that worked for people? What we found was that the work of Dark Matter - Smart Cities Made Human, has been fundamental in shifting the mindsets of our corporation, colleagues and leaders. There is no existing roadmap to guide our work as we remake the next generation of civic services. We need bridge builders and futurists; agile and adaptable dreamers who know how to deliver; lifelong learners who lean
into complexity; and agents of change who are not afraid to question the status quo or the potential of an idea.

We believe we have only scratched the surface of this work. It is critical for governments and their collaborators at all levels to dig in, take the smart risks and explore what it means to design technology and data-enabled cities with people at the centre. We need to dream big about the kind of place our citizens want to live, work and thrive in and make smart decisions that enable that future. The rate of technology and change demands this mindset of us, and it demands it now.

Service design practices offer the potential to not only improve the delivery of services - humanizing the smart city discussion - but to also remake the stuff of which our institutions are made. We believe that it is a critical part of practice to use these tools to work on the thinking and mindsets inside of government.

The work of Dark Matter and our lab is a statement, a point of intrigue, a place to connect and consult with emerging stakeholders. It makes the dark matter of our future seem possible, legitimate, richer, normal. We challenge more of our colleagues to press at the
borders of their consultation work, to challenge the scope of their mandates, and to advocate relentlessly for the person at the end of every service, and the human living in the city.

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