We need to be ready for the future

The Corporate Strategic Plan is about the future, but I’ll begin by talking about the past.

I was recently inspired by a presentation on nation building – specifically our country’s history of nation building. The speaker traced its path from the construction of the Rideau Canal and Canadian Pacific Railway to the development of our telecommunications network, so we could watch Hockey Night in Canada from coast to coast, to more recent endeavours like the Canadarm. The central message was: big visions and big ideas have served as a “uniquely-Canadian” foundation for innovation and we have only just scratched the surface of nation building in Canada.

We have only just scratched the surface of city building in Guelph. From its earliest days, Guelph has been proud of its self-reliance and sense of community. Our founder John Galt had a big vision for Guelph. He carefully planned the town to include churches, schools, and a public market. He saw this as a way to promote the agricultural settlement of the area. Guelph is an early example of a planned, “complete” community. We can track a similar commitment to “big ideas” over the last 185 years of Guelph building:

  • the construction of a grand City Hall in – what was then – the back woods
  • the Provincial Winter Fair Grounds
  • the Arkell Spring Grounds that today, over a hundred years later, provide 60% of our drinking water
  • our riverland trail system
  • and the remarkable “place-making” of Market Square that has exceeded our wildest imaginations

Guelph is a tightly-knit community that retains its small-town feel. We like to do things our own way; this has made us the birthplace of a remarkable number of innovations. We make a difference – locally and globally.

But we know the world around us is changing. Guelph is changing.

If nothing more, the Places to Grow Act, forced us to lift our gaze beyond our own borders and take stock of that change. The Greater Toronto Area will run out of Greenfield developable land within the next 30 years, putting pressure on cities like ours. Yet, this has not our only cue;

  • The federal and provincial governments are both in deficit positions for the first time in many years.
  • Significant changes are at play in Ontario’s economy and economic uncertainty globally has investors nervous.
  • Guelph’s population is aging, becoming more diverse, and becoming more mobile.
  • There are growing inequities in our society. Youth unemployment is high.
  • Technological advances keep us scrambling to keep pace.
  • And at the same time, citizen expectations are growing. It’s no longer enough for municipalities to fix the roads and collect waste; we are urged to address complex issues like climate change and poverty as well.

I would like to read a quote:

“Communities need both magnets and glue to thrive in the global economy. Magnets attract new people and companies to renew and broaden the local pool of skills. The glue refers to the physical and social infrastructure that holds communities together.” Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter of the Harvard School of Business

What is our glue?

It’s a strong and resilient economy; a safe community; a healthy environment; a high quality of life where social and health needs are being met for everyone.

The glue can be found in the answers to some pretty fundamental questions:

  • Will our children have the opportunity to live, work, and raise families in the very community they were born?
  • Will there be pathways to opportunity and wellbeing for everyone or will some people be left behind?

In my opinion, the glue is what makes life worth living. These are the things that matter.

In times of change like this one, we face a fundamental choice. We can let the forces of change roll over us, and deal with what comes. Or, we can take charge of our future and invest in the glue that holds us together. If we agree that we want to take charge of our future, the next obvious questions are – how, and how fast?

That’s where the corporate strategic plan we’re considering tonight comes in.

Council has asked for and is receiving a transformational plan that furthers our success as city builders and positions us for the future.

I have used this simple graphic in presentations to the community to positive response. It sets out the three building blocks of our local government:









The community: our taxpayers

  • They elect members of Council, and expect results from their elected officials.
  • They provide taxes to City Hall to deliver services, and expect value for their investment.

Council: our elected officials

  • We provide leadership and results to the community, and oversight to administration.

Civic administration: City employees

  • The administration delivers services to the community, and demonstrates performance to Council so that we can fulfill our oversight role.

It’s a simplified model, but in essence, that’s it. We work this way because, like all democratic institutions, our local government is founded on the understanding that we can achieve more by working together than we can as individuals. The players in this model and their basic responsibilities are not going to change.

But what we can change – and what the strategic plan proposes to change – is how each player fulfills their responsibilities.

  • How should Council provide leadership and demonstrate results?
  • How should the Civic Administration provide services and demonstrate value to the taxpayer and be accountable for its performance to Council?

We cannot continue our record of strong city building without ensuring the glue that holds us together as an organization is also strong.

But more than that – we need to be ready for the future.

The corporate strategic plan proposes new ways for the three sides of the triangle to work together, in three broad focus areas:

  • City Building
  • Organizational Excellence
  • Innovation in City Government

By building our capacity for innovation and organizational excellence, our Civic Administration is enabling Council to focus on our role – furthering our community’s remarkable history of big ideas and City building.

About Karen Farbridge

An unwavering change maker seeking a just, democratic and sustainable world.

View all posts by Karen Farbridge

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