Stepping up to the smart cities challenge - Canadian Government Executive
E-governmentInnovationsService deliveryTransformation
April 17, 2018

Stepping up to the smart cities challenge

Welcome to the era of Smart Cities where connectivity will drive your daily commute, where internet infrastructure will be as critical as any bridge, hospital or highway in guaranteeing a safe, accessible, healthy and prosperous community for you and your family. Technology and data will be the new tools for urban planners to improve the economic development and the livability of cities.

What may have been considered revolutionary 25 years ago can now be cast as a logical evolution in our urban centres.  We’re now at a point where the “internet of things” is actually a thing. It’s the digital connective tissue that enables the muscle and bones of the Smart City.

It’s the technology and data flow we will rely on to conduct commerce, deliver goods and services, relieve traffic congestion, keep the streets cleaner, provide better access to healthcare and improve public safety. It’s all about opportunities to make cities more walkable, more livable and more viable.

Dozens of Canadian municipalities and communities are already on the Smart Cities bandwagon. They’re putting their final touches on their own initiatives and ideas aimed at urban living in the 21st century. They’ve done so thanks to $75 million in awards being offered by the federal government.

Canada launched its Smart Cities Challenge (SCC) in November of last year offering cash awards ranging from $5-$50 million. The goal is to encourage cities, towns and indigenous communities to put their ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation to work to improve the lives of their residents. In the parlance of the new millennium, the Smart City Challenge encourages cities, towns and First Nations communities to disrupt themselves. It gives them permission and incentive to break out of the “we’ve always done it this way” trap.

The City of Edmonton is well into its preparations – publishing its Smart City Strategy in 2017. It’s an in-depth document that includes a message from Mayor Don Iveson. In it, Mayor Iveson calls the smart city era the “next frontier for governments”. Using data and analytics will be critical to “make better evidence-based decisions” on how to plan and build communities.

Tom Vair is the Deputy CAO – Community Development and Enterprise Services for the City of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. He says the SCC allows municipalities to hit the rethink-button and the cash reward tends to sharpen the focus on planning. “It forces you to look ahead 10 or 20 years and ask: What do we want to have? What are the things the residents will expect to have so we can build a foundation using SCC funding? It’s a unique opportunity to think big and think ahead.”

As Canada’s Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, Amarjeet Sohi told a Toronto audience in April 2017, “The Smart Cities Challenge will encourage cities to adopt new and innovative approaches to city building while focussing on innovative, measurable and outcome-based solutions.”

It also requires the public and private sectors to reconsider their approach to infrastructure design and delivery and promotes a broader discussion and understanding of community needs. Minister Sohi credits the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships (CCPPP) for promoting the SCC idea. “Months before launching this $300 million dollar initiative in Budget 2017, (the) Council came to visit us and this idea was part of our conversations. It was bold and something that perfectly caught the needs and inspiration of communities across the country.”

CCPPP President and CEO, Mark Romoff, says the Council has long been a supporter of this type of challenge, primarily because it demands a forward-thinking conversation.

“We have the privilege and pressure of living in the first digital century in history when everything from our energy sources to our entertainment are commanded and connected by binary code,” says Romoff. ”The time has come to apply those disruptive forces to the design, construction, maintenance and operations of our critical infrastructure. The innate, innovative spirit of the Smart Cities Challenge will necessitate new eyes and bold ideas to ensure the next generation of integrated infrastructure and service delivery provide the best value for our communities.”

Halifax, Mississauga, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver are among the major urban centres joining Edmonton in the competition. In fact, Vancouver and Surrey, B.C. have announced they will join forces to take on the Challenge. In a joint news release, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner says, “the cities of Surrey and Vancouver have an opportunity to realize smart city infrastructure investment that could prove transformational for our region and meaningfully benefit citizens’ quality of life for decades to come.”

The Smart Cities Challenge is also a means for Canada’s First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities to address their unique infrastructure needs – including broadband connectivity that provides economic development opportunities, improved healthcare access and educational advancement in remote regions of the country.

Each applicant is required to present a Challenge Statement – “a single sentence that defines the outcome or outcomes a community aims to achieve by implementing its smart cities proposal.” Much of the attention is focused on ways and means to make communities more livable, healthier, mobile and inclusive.

Such was the case in similar competitions in the UK and the United States. Glasgow won the UK Future Cities Competition in 2013. Columbus, Ohio took top honours in the 2016 U.S. Smart Cities Challenge. Both cities focused their attention on relieving their increasing transportation stresses. The plans are based on integrated data exchanges that improve everything from traffic flow, to air quality, from pedestrian safety to journey planning.

But Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge also provides small and mid-sized communities with the chance to recalibrate local economies – particularly in municipalities that live and die by the success of a large, major employer. Where they may have relied almost exclusively on the manufacturing industry, some cities see smart city thinking as a new foundation for economic growth and business development.

That will be the focus for the City of Oshawa, where high paying, skilled jobs were lost and businesses died at an alarming rate in the wake of the world economic crisis. The Great Recession staggered Oshawa’s major employer – General Motors.

Today, Oshawa is bouncing back with new jobs and a more diversified economy. Mayor John Henry says the Smart Cities Challenge is a great opportunity for the city to accelerate its economic growth and to increase its downtown density. It starts with the 100 kilometres of fibre optic cable running through the city, which is all about moving data to connect infrastructure, services and business.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re at General Motors engineering centre or our Lakeridge Health Corporation or at either of the universities or colleges located in town- the key is utilizing fibre to do the things that need doing.”

Similarly, Sault Ste. Marie was economically reliant on a single major employer – Algoma Steel. But Tom Vair says Sault Ste. Marie has created an economic environment in the past 5 or 10 years that has supported the launch of several start-ups, has seen a growing IT sector, and companies relocating to the Soo. The SCC, he says, “is an opportunity to add more fuel to that fire.”

The SCC has caught fire in the community. Soo residents have had no shortage of ideas on how the city can improve services and facilities. Mayor Christian Provenzano says the SCC, “gives the City an opportunity to ask some interesting questions and get a sense of how the community feels about potential directions. This challenge gives us the broader opportunity to ask some of those questions, get a sense of the response and some ideas on how to move forward.”

Henry says the SCC process “is a win for the entire community that is driven by the community not just by us here at City Hall. Whether we win or lose, we have the pieces in place to continue down this (smart city) path.”

Tom Vair admits the smart city agenda may not move as quickly if Sault Ste. Marie fails to win the SCC, but he says the real value comes from the innovation and ideas generated by the competition. “This has been an opportunity to really engage the community and galvanize support for priority initiatives,” he says. “We don’t want to keep good ideas at bay. It’s good to have that dialogue and we can add that into our planning at the city as we go forward.”

By that measure, the federal government’s $75 million investment in SCC awards could easily initiate hundreds of millions of dollars in inventive, if not visionary new approaches to urban infrastructure design and service delivery.

Whether it’s monitoring the flow of cross-border goods or integrating emergency response with transportation technologies, the worlds of concrete and connectivity are quickly merging.

“We simply can’t think of smart cities without smart infrastructure,” says Mark Romoff. “We’re confident public-private partnerships will play an important role as the smart city plans unfold across Canada. The model lends itself to the development of the new, innovative, high tech design that will connect infrastructure and services.”

Applications for the SCC must be submitted by April 24, 2018. The SCC finalists will be selected this summer. The winners will be announced in the spring of 2019.

About this author

Dave Trafford

Dave Trafford is Director, Communications and Media Relations at the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships.

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