Written by Vibhu Gairola

Gabe Sawhney, Executive Director and co-founder, Code for Canada


What does Code for Canada do, and why did you start it?

Code for Canada helps connect innovators in the government with the tech and design community. We’re modelled after similar organizations in other countries, including Code for America and chapters in Australia, Germany, Mexico, and Pakistan. There’s a particularly good opportunity right now to capitalize on government interest in technology and design and how it can serve citizens better. The timing was right for us to work closely with those in the government who are leading that work on the inside.

What kind of responses have you seen from your target audience?

At this stage, the two main groups we’re trying to reach are innovators in government — committed public servants looking for new tools to help them with their work — and also Fellows and civic tech participants who have a real interest in the potential of tech and design to solve civic issues. On the fellowship side, the response was greater than expected: we received more than 300 applications for our first cohort of just six spots. On the civic tech side, it’s hard to describe the awesomeness of a civic tech hack night unless you’ve been to one. People really park their cynicism and tackle complicated problems.

What’s your favourite part about working in the civic tech ecosystem?

I’m really into the potential of civic tech to help people learn about government and how to actually bring about positive change. A lot of civic tech projects, just like startups, start in one place and end up somewhere quite different as a result of what the participants learn. We often have a paradoxical relationship with government; without understanding how it works, we somehow expect it to solve all our problems. We all need to be rolling up our sleeves.

What advice would you give to anyone trying to do something similar to you?

The most satisfying and biggest learning moments in this work are the opportunities to talk to people who have expertise in some area — public servants, for example — who deeply understand the complexity of certain problems. If you’re able to find and get time with them, it expands your mind. With most of the problems our communities face, people have been trying to solve them for decades. Talking to those people is an important step that we miss too often.

What can we expect from Code for Canada in the future?

We’re really excited to be building out the civic tech ecosystem nationally, so I think you can expect to see a lot of new civic tech groups springing up across the country over the next year. We’re not doing that work, but we’re helping catalyze it. And we hope to keep growing our workshops and courses and expanding our footprint outside of Toronto and Ontario.
What would you say is the most underrated thing about Toronto, and why?

I love Toronto so profoundly. Something I’ve experienced through civic tech, Jane’s Walk, and other local communities is that people are really keen to get involved. Compared to some other cities, people may think of Torontonians as vain or aloof, but there’s a great deal of grassroots energy and a real love for community here, coupled with an intention to help make things better.

If you had to describe Toronto as a food, what would it be?

Maybe some kind of dumpling? Many different cultures have different forms of food in wrappers, and you don’t always know what’s going to be inside. That’s Toronto in a nutshell.