A couple of weeks ago, hundreds of municipal officials and public servants met at the Queensbury Centre in Regina for the annual meeting of the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA).
Saskatchewan has Canada’s fastest growing provincial economy, and the rooms were abuzz with growth-related issues like infrastructure and affordable housing.
I like getting out to these get-togethers. It’s a chance to leave the office behind, shake off the reading, the researching, the analyzing and the writing, and spend some time with those who live and breath public policy at ground zero. Of course, such invitations don’t come without strings. At SUMA, I gave a presentation about www.LetsTOC.ca. Click here to view the PowerPoint of the presentation.
I showed delegates some numbers that I developed from the capital budgets of the seven biggest cities in western Canada—Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, and Winnipeg. Over the next 10 years, the capital budgets show a combined infrastructure need of $63 billion but only $21.5 billion in secured funding. That leaves $41.5 billion worth of infrastructure investment—for new and existing assets—that is unfunded.
Sure, some dispute the numbers. Do the cities really need that much? Or, is this just a ploy for more grant funding? For sake of argument, let’s cut the number by half—a $2 billion funding gap. That’s still a lot of kingo.
The point is, the magnitude of the challenge requires policy-makers to embrace innovation as a guiding theme. This means thinking and doing things in new ways that are:
BIG …and… small.
A seemingly “small” or insignificant innovation that hits on a routine infrastructure investment—such as a regular maintenance procedure—has the potential to increase efficiency and productivity, and thereby, lower costs. Huge savings can accumulate because the infrastructure investment is undertaken year after year and in city after city. Over time, that means big savings that can then be pumped into completing more infrastructure projects.
A good example of this kind of innovative focus comes from a new initiative being played out in several Saskatchewan municipalities to design, test, and prove out a better and more efficient way to replace water service connections—a regular if not rather mundane maintenance procedure that goes on in cities across the world each and every day. The new approach—dubbed “End-to-End” Service Connection—is one of the key projects being financed and driven by Communities of Tomorrow (CT).
The idea is to reduce the amount of time it takes to repair or replace a local water service connection by designing a new type of excavation cage, pipe-winching device, and water shut-off valve. Just like arthroscopic surgery, the intent is to reduce the amount of digging and subsequent repairs to streets, sidewalks, boulevards, and property. When compared to the current method of service connection replacement, cost savings in the order of 40% could be achievable.
In Regina alone, there are almost 7,000 local water service connections that need to be replaced at some point in the near future. Possible savings could reach $15 million. If Regina’s situation reflects that of the other six big western cities, that $15 million adds up to $250 million in combined savings.
While the innovation itself is interesting enough, what’s more is the innovative process by which “End-to-End” got started and continued to develop. CT first held a series of discussions with the managers, leaders, and staff at a number of Saskatchewan’s cities. These “brainstorming” or “blue sky” sessions were intended to identify a list of common challenges to which the cities were seeking solutions—a sort of “wish list.” Repairing and replacing municipal water service connections floated to the top as a shared concern.
During these discussions, it was found that the City of Regina had pioneered a new “Super Winch” system, which was the key that opened the door to a completely new approach. CT pulled together a collaborative consortium to begin and develop the work. The partners in this consortium include staff from the Public Works and Engineering Departments of seven Saskatchewan cities, researchers from Canada’s National Research Council, the University of Regina, and the Saskatchewan Research Council, and instructors from the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology (SIAST).
The efforts of the consortium are geared toward developing and proving out a high efficiency version of the service connection system that can be deployed throughout Saskatchewan municipalities. The City of Regina and the City of North Battleford are participating as the “living labs” to demonstrate and test the new system.
Dorian Wandzura is the General Manager of Public Works for the City of Regina. He understands that these types of “small” innovations can generate “big bucks” in savings. “Small savings on each job in beijing can add up to significant dollars when that job is multiplied thousands of times over. This is a clear demonstration that an innovative approach can make a dramatic difference,”  he says.
John Wade, City Manager for Melfort, echoes the refrain. “Anytime that there’s a possibility of saving dollars for the taxpayer, and there’s ways to accomplish that, we’re behind it one hundred percent.” 
Back to SUMA. Delegates at the workshop where I presented on LetsTOC were invited to fill out a short survey prior to the session. One of the questions asked delegates to identify infrastructure innovations they were pursuing. While a number of examples flowed forth, the one mentioned the most was establishing partnerships to develop new technologies and improve on existing practices and approaches.
Broadly speaking, there is nothing new or innovative about the concept of partnership. But, when non-profits like Communities of Tomorrow and Canada West Foundation join up with municipalities and researchers at educational institutions and independent research councils, the “small” idea can produce some “big” results.
By: Casey Vander Ploeg, Senior Policy Analyst