The City of Kitchener unveiled its Digital Kitchener Innovation Lab space Tuesday at Communitech. Lab Director Karl Allen-Muncey took some time to respond to some questions about the over-emphasis on “disruption,” the city’s hopes for thelab, what he brings to the table and, speaking of tables, his pick for the town’s best place to eat.
Q – If it’s all about disruption, how will disruption help the City of Kitchener solve its first Big Problem, and what other areas will the lab be exploring?
A – In my personal opinion, disruption is an overused term, and, as with innovation, should only be used when there is context to verify its use. In respect to where we are as a municipality, we are incredibly fortunate and uniquely positioned to have access to some incredible technologies and relationships though this community. The first program, which not only spurred on, but funded, this lab, is the city-wide conversion to LED street lighting, and although innovative in terms of financial efficiency, the addition of adaptive controls is allowing us to have access to our own cross-city mesh network, which will act as the backbone of an IoT framework of sensors ... We will be activating this network for internal development shortly, and will soon after be working with other partners and developing our own technical use cases, hardware and software.
Q – Tech veterans often speak of the slowness of the public sector. How agile does the Innovation Lab hope to be?
A – We’re fast, because we are enabled to be. We’ve already seen that there are some interesting efficiencies and opportunities created by having an external lab, the first being a cultural one: Having a location dedicated to thinking differently, and perhaps trying to take a different approach, it has also encouraged conversations about how to potentially use the resources we have available in new ways.
Q – How deep does the City of Kitchener hope that the transformative experience will go?
A – It doesn’t need to be transformative, as much as it needs to be progressive in a way that creates value and is sustainable. The innovation process works best when the outcome is a direct reflection of the metrics, research and insight that created the innovation case in the first place. But to identify where innovation is possible, you need to have insight and be able to work with technologies and processes that might not even yet be on the municipal radar… and to this end, I have developed a split mandate for the lab that allows for multiple areas for us to concentrate and work our efforts around. From reinforcing core smart city initiatives of the city ... to community facilitation and city workers, on what it takes to make Kitchener a better place to live, work and play . . . to identifying more speculative technologies, testing and seeing whether there is a place to apply them to a municipal framework. So overall, there is a lot of depth, from concept to delivery and support ... We are going to aim to be as transparent with our efforts, findings and projects as possible, and will also be taking an open-source and open-data approach to our work, where possible, to help other municipalities learn and grow from the unique work we are doing.
Q – What are the timeline expectations for the lab?
A – [City] council has been incredibly supportive of this venture, and through the transparency and planning aspects of the lab, we are going to be in regular contact with the council teams. The timeline expectations, as originally mapped out through council, and the relationship with Communitech, is to create a lab and embark on a three-year initiative on various innovation identified projects. We are extremely happy with the initial work that we have undertaken ... as we have identified categories of innovation cases, set a split-level mandate for the lab, created the foundation team and project maps, multiple speaking opportunities and international smart city conversations, and are participating in ongoing smart city research initiatives, while at the same time strengthening our relationship with Communitech, the local tech eco-system, companies and partners.
Q – The tech ecosystem here in Kitchener has been bubbling along for 25 years. Why plunge directly into the ecosystem as a participant now?
A – Kitchener has always had a good history of working with the local tech ecosystem and embraced initiatives that foster and encourage the tech ecosystem. You only have to look at some of the tech companies and brands that have chosen to call Kitchener home, or refuse incentivized offers to move away … and that’s because Kitchener “gets it.” The decision to start an innovation lab wasn’t a fashionable one: there are clearly areas that need new environments, resources and skills to be able to execute on some of these new initiatives. It really is an exciting time to be with the city, and indeed, in Kitchener.
Q – What could other innovation labs learn from Kitchener’s participation in the space?
A – The incredible part of being part of the innovation lab ecosystem is that there is a genuine interest in transparency and sharing of insights. Every lab has a different team structure, mandate, and in most cases, motivation for their labs. However, when we get together, and share or collaborate our individual situations, it always gives each of us an opportunity to learn ... We hope to add value to these relationships and share our work and findings with those that are perhaps, not directly linked to the Communitech innovation ecosystem, but to the Innovation Lab and Smart City ecosystems at large.
Q – With governments committed to open data, what do you hope the lab will do to stimulate and support innovation in the open data space?
A – We are already active and participate with Communitech and ODX, however are also becoming far more involved in creating open source and open data measures in that wider space. As you can imagine data management does not just act as a source of information, but also has (in some cases) some pretty big security aspects — so we need to make sure that we conform to all of the necessary standards and requirements that a municipality is required to conform to.
Q – Will other municipal partners — the Region of Waterloo, the cities of Waterloo and Cambridge, the townships, the school boards — have any role in the lab?
A – The lab exists as an initiative solely funded by the City of Kitchener, however the insights and opportunities we have to collaborate are vast, and to that end and in the interests of collaboration, we will, of course, be embarking on initiatives and knowledge-sharing that involves or benefits our neighbours. There are, of course, obvious opportunities to leverage the foundations and learning of this lab at a wider geographic and regional level.
Q – For the developer, engineer or intern coming to you with a “Big Idea,” what question(s) should they have the answer(s) for?
A – I would always ask for a solid “Why?” The benefits, tangible or otherwise, and sustainability plan. And of course, that all gets overruled by the “How?” What resources would be required to make it a reality?
Q – What does Karl Allen-Muncey bring to the Innovation Lab?
A – Originally from the UK, I have a mixed entrepreneurial background, founded in technology, startups, business development and growth ... As a director of a lab such as this, you need to have access to multiple skills and experience, ranging from concept and research, to delivery. I have found that by having a strong foundational knowledge in tech, conversation facilitation, marketing and product development, I’ve been able to apply many different skills to these roles, from grant writing and mandate development, to speaking opportunities and hardware fabrication.
Q – Who is Karl Allen-Muncey in five factoids: best place to eat, best place to take the kids, best place to de-stress, best way to get to work, best thing about the “new” Kitchener.
A – 1. Best place to eat: The Belmont, in Belmont Village. I can never order anything other than the Chicken and Waffles; 2. Best place to take the kids: My little girls are 2 ½ and seven months, but growing rapidly. You’ll usually find us in the park, the backyard, at the library or in one of the many awesome coffee shops in the area, with Americanos and steamed milk. 3. Best place to de-stress: I have a nice little hammock in the shade between two trees [at his St. Agatha home]; 4. Best way to get to work: Triumph Bonneville (motorcycle), or bicycling on a nice road bike; and 5. Best thing about the “new” Kitchener: Arts, Culture, Technology, Families, Design, Good Coffee, and Good Beer: Communities are mixed environments and need to have many things in place to attract and retain the best kinds of people. I think we have a new, or renewed, appreciation for the diversity and experiences in our community.