Our cities are growing at an unprecedented rate. In 1900, only 13 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. Two years ago, for the first time ever, more than half of us were urban dwellers. By 2050, that number will rise to 70 percent as we add the equivalent of seven New Yorks, or 21 Torontos, to the planet every year.
The last census conducted by Statistics Canada in 2006 revealed that Canada’s population growth was the highest among G8 countries between 2001 and 2006. The census also showed that nearly 90 percent of this growth was concentrated in large metropolitan areas. More than 80 percent of Canadians now live in urban areas.
There’s an associated cost to this rapid and continued urbanization. According to Transport Canada, traffic congestion costs Canada’s nine largest cities close to $4 billion a year. If Canada’s current electrical grid were just five percent more efficient, it would be like permanently eliminating the fuel and greenhouse gas emissions from four million cars.
Municipal infrastructures that deliver vital services – transportation, healthcare, education, public safety, energy and water – must be able to sense and respond intelligently and in a synchronized way to meet the requirements of their expanding populations.
Canadian cities have an opportunity to become “smarter” and remain prosperous by capitalizing on advances in information technology to connect these essential city systems together to deliver greater efficiency and better overall insight.
According to a recent study by IBM’s Institute of Business Value, “A Vision of Smarter Cities: How Cities Can Lead the Way into a Prosperous and Sustainable Future,” municipal leaders need to think about three things in order to transform their region into a “smarter” city. To take advantage of this vision, city leaders should:
- Assemble a team: City administrators need to work seamlessly across their own organizational boundaries and partner effectively with other levels of government to tackle issues that require significant collaboration among city, state or provincial leaders, as well as national levels of government. In addition to formulating new policies themselves, cities must be able to articulate challenges they may face when policies are made elsewhere.
- Think revolution, not evolution: Building a next-generation city requires a municipality to be more than focused or efficient. City leaders need to look at systems, most of which are interconnected, and enable people and objects to interact in entirely new ways. These systems can use instruments to analyze and report on the exact condition of individual parts, such as city traffic systems that re-route vehicles around automobile accidents. By using “intelligent” systems, cities can respond to changes quickly and accurately, and better predict and plan for future events.
- Target all city systems, not just one: Cities obviously must prioritize their challenges, but the inter-relationships between the various systems operating in a city means that solving problems in just one system is not a viable long-term option. A holistic strategy that looks at all of a city’s systems, and builds in system-wide feedback mechanisms, is a better way to deliver sustainable prosperity to its citizens.
The good news is that progressive work has begun in Canada and cities around the world.
The Ottawa Food Bank collaborated with a local technology partner to replace manual efforts and streamline the work behind locating accurate, up-to-date grocery hamper agency information for those in need. The impact: food gets to those who need it faster.
The University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children are conducting research using technology that will help doctors detect subtle changes in biomedical readings, such as heart rate, providing advance warning of a potential change in the condition of critically ill premature babies.
In Edmonton, local police are gleaning relevant information from massive amounts of complex data and using that information to quickly detect patterns and spot crime trends. By integrating all information related to incidents, offenses, arrests and calls for service, Edmonton’s commanders and officers can make more timely and informed decisions about crime fighting. They can now more effectively surface leads and deploy policing resources, and ultimately improve police and public safety and reduce crime rates.
In Denmark, 20 percent of the country’s power needs are met by wind energy. In Stockholm, a congestion charging system has reduced city traffic by 18 percent and carbon emissions by 14 to 18 percent. It has also cut the waiting time of morning commuters by half.
Positive elements of change are taking place in many areas. As leaders in municipal government, we have the innovative minds and talent right here in Canada to address the challenges posed by urbanization and improve the way we manage our cities. With the courage and vision to act now, we can help Canadian municipalities work better and build a more sustainable path for future generations.
Kim Devooght is Vice President, Public Sector, for IBM Canada, responsible for providing products, services, solutions and consulting to Canadian governments, educational, healthcare and life sciences institutions.