Laurie Guthrie: Dedicated to Advancing Fredericton’s Digital Transformation via Civic Innovation Excellence

Laurie Guthrie
Laurie Guthrie

As an influential leader, Laurie Guthrie‘s professional experience is primarily in economic development. She has experience spearheading various strategic initiatives to cultivate economic/business growth and cultural diversity through immigration and to earn Fredericton’s brand equity as the “Startup Capital of Canada” and a “Smart City”. Laurie has a Bachelor of Integrated Studies (BIS) from the University of New Brunswick and works as a Certified Economic Developer (EcD) for the City of Fredericton.

She has also volunteered with ONB Connects, a program that helps local businesses and organizations connect with immigrants, international students and recent graduates.

Laurie led the design and oversight of Fredericton’s civic innovation living lab, Boost Fredericton. The primary goal of this initiative is to enhance Fredericton’s position as an early adopter of cutting-edge technologies and innovative applications. By addressing smart city challenges and fostering economic development, Boost Fredericton aims to benefit both the municipal corporation and the local community.

Additionally, Laurie is dedicated to advancing Fredericton’s digital transformation, positioning it as the premier hub for 5G innovation in Atlantic Canada. This pioneering endeavor has garnered national and international recognition, placing the lab as a beacon of civic innovation excellence. Through various engagements, Boost Fredericton has emerged as a best-practice model for civic innovation in Canada.

In an exclusive interview with CIOLook, Laurie discussed how she is shaping the future of smart cities.

Please introduce yourself and describe your role in shaping the future of smart cities.

I was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, where I reside with my husband and children.

As a long-serving employee of the City of Fredericton, I have worked primarily in economic development – spearheading various strategic initiatives to cultivate local economic growth and earn Fredericton’s brand equity as a ‘Smart City’.

Early in my career, I had the privilege of working on Fredericton’s first economic development strategy, Vision 2000, which set the stage for our smart city journey in 1992. I was part of some exciting initiatives that were the foundational building blocks of our smart city evolution (see graphic below), including creating a technology and research park and innovation district, as well as marketing and branding municipal digital infrastructure investments.

In 2018, I project managed Fredericton’s participation in Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge, competing nationally as a top ten finalist among 200 communities.

Following the challenge, I developed a white paper to identify strategic opportunities and a proactive strategy to support Fredericton’s ongoing ‘smart city’ journey by creating a civic innovation lab called Boost Fredericton.

(Note: Insert image at the time of design) 

What initially sparked your interest in working to advance smart cities, and how has your journey unfolded in this field?

I have to say it was serendipity. I literally ‘fell’ into economic development when I started my career at the City of Fredericton. We were developing Vision 2000, which was focused on diversifying Fredericton from a government and university-based town to a thriving knowledge-based economy. At the same time, New Brunswick’s former Premier, Frank McKenna, was also driving the ‘Information Highway,’ which was attracting world attention. It was truly the most exciting time in my economic development career, and I was hooked!

As part of Vision 2000, I was able to lend capacity and work with thought leaders whose collective efforts have contributed to Fredericton’s global recognition as a ‘smart city’ and one of the world’s top seven intelligent communities (ICF) three times.

What has sparked and maintained my interest is the City of Fredericton’s progressive, highly visible commitment to innovation, entrepreneurial approach, and willingness to experiment and use technology to improve municipal services and residents’ quality of life and spur economic growth.

Working with our CIO, my journey in recent years has entailed the design and management of a civic innovation living lab, Boost Fredericton, to strengthen Fredericton’s role as an early adopter of new technologies and edge applications, solve smart city challenges, and drive economic development for the benefit of the municipal corporation and community. Essentially, we are giving entrepreneurs and post-secondary education students real municipal problems to solve and the opportunity to test solutions in our living lab environment (see graphic).

(Note: Insert image at the time of design)

How do you approach leadership in the context of driving innovation and transformation within smart city initiatives?

With any innovation camp or civic innovation technology pilot project that we run, there has to be strategic alignment with corporate priorities and our municipal growth strategy. Ultimately, we want to move the needle towards measurable progress with our goals, create public value, and fuel economic development through commercialization referrals to our economic development agency, Ignite.

What are the most critical factors for successfully implementing smart city solutions, and how do you ensure stakeholder buy-in and collaboration?

I think the success of any smart city/civic innovation project hinges on having a solid project charter or terms of reference to clearly delineate roles and accountabilities, project scope, timeline, expectations, outcomes, etc.

Good communication and being able to demonstrate value to your partners are essential.

Partnerships are key! We engage with community stakeholders on multiple levels, from presenting innovation camps to advancing our digital evolution as Atlantic Canada’s first 5G city.

In your opinion, what role do technology and data play in shaping the future of smart cities, and how do you leverage them effectively in your work?

Technology is an enabler, but we recognize that data and technology are not the solution to many of the systemic issues facing cities today. Wicked problems require innovative, sometimes long-term, social, organizational, economic, and political processes and solutions.

Within the Boost Lab, we leverage data and technology to power ideas through digital infrastructure like our LoRaWAN (IoT sensor network), open data portal, and, most recently, Rogers’ 5G. That is to say that we make our data as readily available as possible through the open data portal so that students and entrepreneurs can use it to innovate and develop prototype ideas, which hopefully can be commercialized. There are great examples of successful startups, from Hotspot Parking (bought by IBI Group) to aspiring entrepreneur Ahmed Shalaby-Atlantic Weather Analytics, who has developed predictive analytics for real-time flood monitoring.

As a leader, how do you foster a culture of innovation and collaboration within your team or organization to address complex urban challenges?

I am always on the hunt for a good challenge that we can present during our Boost innovation camps to give post-secondary students experiential learning opportunities by solving real municipal challenges and engaging with local entrepreneurs.

In the past, we have held innovation round tables among our municipal leaders to talk about what’s keeping them awake at night in terms of municipal challenges and how we might use technology and work with partners to solve those challenges.

Over the years, we have fostered that ‘culture of innovation’ within government; thinking outside the box; not being afraid of experimenting; co-creating with entrepreneurs, citizens, and students; and embracing failure and learning from it.

What advice would you give aspiring leaders passionate about driving positive change and innovation in urban environments?

Leverage your networks to learn best practices rather than reinventing the wheel.

In part due to the Smart Cities Challenge, we developed an extensive national network to learn and share our repeatable model with other municipalities.

Look for collaboration opportunities with industry and your post-secondary educational institutions. In Fredericton, we have fantastic partnerships with the University of New Brunswick (UNB), the New Brunswick Community College (NBCC) and the New Brunswick College of Craft & Design (NBCCD). We have brilliant minds and engage with our partners on multiple levels to solve municipal and community challenges. For example, the students participate in our Boost Innovation Camps, we run technology pilot projects with industry and aspiring entrepreneurs to test ideas, and we leverage research expertise to tackle problems – with access to over 60+ R&D organizations within our Innovation District.

How do you balance the need for technological advancement with considerations for inclusivity, equity, and accessibility in smart city initiatives?

Our 2019 Smart Cities Challenge submission focused on recognizing the needs of our residents – particularly the more vulnerable segments of our population – to connect them with services. The premise of this was that we cannot be a smart city if we leave our most vulnerable behind. Although we did not win in the final stage, our projects shaped the city’s future direction regarding accessibility, inclusion and equity.

Lastly, on a more personal note, what motivates and inspires you to continue your work in shaping the future of smart cities, and what legacy do you hope to leave behind in this field?

What truly motivates me is that I want Fredericton to continue to grow economically so that there are great opportunities for my children to stay here, we can retain our post-secondary students, and we can attract talent from around the world, which fuels our local businesses.

More recently, in addition to Boost, I have been assigned the population growth portfolio due to Fredericton’s exponential growth. I am really excited to get back into more core economic development and hopefully help effect some positive impact in municipal government so that our newcomers not only feel welcomed when they arrive but can also put down roots and build fulfilling lives and careers here.

Finally, I love to travel the world, but I cannot imagine living anywhere else. Fredericton is beautiful situated on the Woolastoq (Saint John River). It’s clean and green, with low crime and short commutes. We have access to amazing art, culture, and recreational amenities like 120km of trail winding through the city. I think we live in the most special place in the world, and I invite you to come visit!