Citizen Engagement Workshops Help Build Smarter Smart Cities in Toronto

Think Big Citizen Engagement Smart City Toronto

Written by Herb Sih, Managing Partner  

Recently, Think Big Partners had the opportunity to help the City of Toronto work on its smart city plan by facilitating several citizen engagement workshops. These workshops, held simultaneously through the support of Cisco via Cisco Telepresence, allowed Toronto city officials to broadcast one central message from the Toronto Reference Library downtown to four other neighboring communities. This hub and spoke workshop model created an immersive engagement experience that empowered citizens to ask questions and offer their opinions. The result was a robust, real-time dialogue that provided mutually beneficial insight for all participants and deeper community-wide understanding of what goals a smart city master plan might incorporate.  

In our opinion, the power of citizen engagement by city leadership should not be undervalued or overlooked. In some European communities, there is a “citizen innovator, co-creation” mentality that has historically provided insight for urban planners in their quest to develop cities (and features) that represent the needs of its citizens, today and beyond. Design thinking which fosters creativity through purpose-driven ideation sessions, like these, help cities bridge the gap between anticipating the needs of its citizens today and designing solutions for tomorrow that aren’t so clear.

Many times, we have seen breakthrough innovations come from the edges, where visibility into future needs comes from people dealing with today’s problems in unorthodox, unusual or even unconventional (within its sector) methods. The masses typically do not see, nor begin to employ, these radical new ways to solve age-old problems. But some of the most disruptive innovations in history have come from insights from seemingly disassociated industries.

In this case, the citizens can provide these insights. Citizens live with problems through their unique perspectives that are shaped by daily life, their personal life experiences and their professional experience. When the right insights are put into the hands of skilled design thinkers with a deep understanding of what is truly possible, solutions can be teased out of a mosaic of comments and current methods being unconventional being used to create powerful answers to previously unanswerable and occasionally unknown problems.

We applaud Toronto’s desire to engage their community to better understand the needs of their community. While a few of the ideas we heard were beyond the scope of implementation given the current state of technology (and working to deliver the advertised ROI), there were several new insights gained that may make all the difference. With its dedication to active citizen engagement, it is no surprise that Toronto continues to build a city that citizens are proud of to live, work and play in, despite some of the urbanization challenges that occur with rapid growth due to it being such a wonderful place to live.

We also applaud the citizens of Toronto that participated in this smart city citizen engagement workshop. Having a voice in your community is important. For some of the citizens, their additional investment of time in a design thinking-oriented ideation process is invaluable. Building smart city as a “co-creator” helps government leadership make the best decisions possible. This saves time, money and reduces frustration for everyone.

We encourage other cities to follow Toronto’s lead on how to build the best smart city possible by conducting citizen engagement workshops like this. Engaging your citizens to weigh in on their problems, needs, goals and aspirations as key stakeholders isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do. Building things that deliver real value is essential in today’s economy. Smart government should examine the needs of today and tomorrow through design thinking citizen engagement workshops and other processes like this. That’s a smart way to build a smart city!

Herb Sih is Managing Partner of Think Big Partners, an innovation driven consulting firm specializing in smart city design, emerging technology development and the creation of economic growth platforms for cities. Connect with Herb, @HerbSih.
For more information on smart city citizen engagement opportunities contact us at'

About Herb Sih

Herb Sih is Managing Partner for Think Big Partners, an innovation-driven firm focused on advising the world's most progressive-minded cities, companies and entrepreneurs. Herb has a deep background in advising entrepreneurs and high growth companies, accelerating innovation and helping communities solve complex problems by building smart cities and connected technologies using human-centered design principles.

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