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'We're enabled to bring about change': Meet the woman tapped to innovate Toronto

New chief innovation officer plans to tackle 311 and move city hall toward offering more for the people who call Toronto home.

Paula Kwan, new director of the Civic Innovation Office at City Hall.

Eduardo Lima / Metro

Paula Kwan, new director of the Civic Innovation Office at City Hall.

Paula Kwan likes to play a game she calls "left or right."

She leaves her home in downtown Toronto, heads in an unfamiliar direction and explores. The experience, she says, helps her see the city in a new way.

Now, Kwan is doing a version of the same thing through the city's bureaucracy. As Toronto's first civic innovation officer, she's leading a team of three people through a process designed to bring "new approaches" to the city.

The group — rounded out by user experience designer Jay Vidyarthi and Todd Orvitz, Toronto's former director of corporate policy — has been operating in "stealth mode" for the past three months, gaining a better understanding of the landscape they'll be working in.

With that under their belts, the team is getting down to business. Their main mission, Kwan said, will be improving Toronto's 311 system, which is often the first point of City contact when residents try to resolve local problems.

The goal fits with the overall philosphy of the innovation post. The office is funded through the New York-based non-profit Bloomberg Philanthropies, which is operating this year under the theme of "creating a more responsive government."

It's not the first time Kwan, who previously worked at Pivotal Labs, has helped tackle a system-wide City issue. In early 2016 she volunteered to be part of the tech advisory committee tasked with reforming Toronto's often frustrating parks and recreation registration signup process.

She loved the work.

"It was an eyeopening and incredibly fulfilling experience that helped bring me here today."

For the 311 project she aims to take an approach learned from tech startups: research, iterative design and pilot testing. She doesn't know what the changes will look like right now, but hopes to have a concept by the end of the year.

Other cities have seen big wins from their civic innovation offices, also funded by Bloomberg.

In New Orleans, for example, an eight-person team used data analytics to help reduce the city's homicide rate by 18 per cent. Boston, meanwhile, is looking at solutions geared toward affordable housing.

Kwan is encouraged by the civic innovation approach.

"A lot of city governments are held back," structurally, which can prevent them from exploring new solutions, she says. "We're enabled to bring about change."

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