Where are all the smart cities?
Over the last 10-15 years we’ve heard a lot about smart cities. In fact, Google Trends shows the interest around the topic saw exponential growth in the 2010’s - peaking in 2015 and remaining a stable area of interest since. During this same period, we saw Alexa and Siri go from a pair of pretty names to important parts of many people’s daily lives, movie streaming become a staple of popular culture, Uber go from a niche startup to a global disruption in the services industry, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies emerge and unravel, and so many other life altering innovations play out. But when we think about our day-to-day lives as citizens, nothing seems to have changed much during the same period.
This begs the question: where are all the smart cities? If the market is estimated at over half a trillion dollars annually, where is this money going? Turns out, mostly into the Big Tech graveyard. But we still think there’s hope. Here’s why.
Typical approaches to the smart city vision
Smart cities had a rough start in life. One of the case studies that sums up a common approach governments took around the smart city vision is Ordos, in China. Located in an area that experienced a mining boom, the Chinese government decided to invest heavily in Ordos for urban development, setting forth a vision for a smart city with futuristic technology, state of the art facilities, and many other elements that would make any of us techies nearly tear up in the pre-2010 era. What ensued was widely regarded as a complete failure: projects were over-budget and late, population targets were being slashed from millions to a few hundred thousand, and the media was putting the project on blast for its shortcomings. A clear lesson can be learned here: don’t build a smart city from scratch.
A few thousand kilometres south east of Ordos, a different approach was being tested out in Lavasa, India. Here, a billionaire decided he would build a futuristic city in the image of luxury-oriented Portofino in Italy. Nevermind the fact that the chosen area was mostly rural and lacked all of the features that make a modern city viable, these people had a vision and the means to make it happen. Or so they thought. The project played out horribly, being the subject of a number of corruption scandals, and grossly missing the mark set forth in its original vision being largely underpopulated today and sparsely visited by occasional courageous tourists. One of its biggest drawbacks was that Lavasa was not subject to typical municipal government mechanisms and regulations, but rather operated and effectively controlled by a private corporation. The lesson learned here is also clear: private organizations are not suitable governments.
A Canadian Horror Story
You might be thinking - “these failures happened in a continent far away from here, with radically different cultural and economic perspectives, there’s no way we’d see this happen in the same way in Canada today”. How I wish you were right.
We need look no further than Google’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto, Big Tech’s most recent attempt at a high-profile land grab. Sidewalk Labs started out as a vision to re-develop an area of the Toronto waterfront previously zoned for industrial use - the city issued a request for proposals and Google obliged with an initial $1.3 Billion vision that would put any technology utopia to shame. The project quickly grew in scope, however, with an additional 190 acres of prime-real estate sweetening the deal.
At the same time, Google was backing out of many of its original commitments, including no longer ensuring data anonymization at the point of collection. The combination of scope creep and indications of iffy privacy policies culminated in a modern-day revolt - people were clearly upset such high value real estate was essentially being ceded to a Big Tech corporation, and they were not impressed with the indications that Google was eager to use the project to increase its ever-growing data collection efforts. As a result, Google pulled out of Sidewalk Labs in 2020, cancelling the controversial project once and for all.
The 4 Smart City Curses
Throughout our research and experience working with Canadian municipalities, it became clear that there are four main curses that have haunted the smart city space so far. Those are:
Dislike towards vendor lock
In numerous failed projects, it is evident that Big Tech’s strategy is to penetrate the market and lock down its market share. This makes the interoperability of different technologies challenging, forcing cities to choose a primary vendor and ultimately be at their mercy. This approach has played out poorly in many cases, being a deterrent to future projects.
Intrusive and abusive data practices
A second important curse is the attempt to collect large amounts of data, including personally identifiable information (PII), in order to achieve certain smart city outcomes. It is clear that citizens will push back for their privacy, especially when the reasoning behind different projects isn’t articulated clearly and transparently.
Failure to be citizen centric
So many smart cities thus far have focused on the deployment of technology first, with lesser considerations to the potential impact it can have on citizens and the community. Although we see this perspective shifting significantly in recent years, it is critical that smart cities start with the needs of the community, and then apply technology to address them.
Painful to manage at scale
Cities are large, and support a wide range of core services. As such, deploying technology throughout - especially Internet of Things (IoT) devices to monitor the environment, infrastructure, and other physical city elements - is a challenging endeavour. With many different networks at play, some known by the City’s IT department and others not, we see this leave missed opportunities for collaboration on the table while also posing a potential cybersecurity risk to the organization as a whole.
Why there’s still hope
If you’ve made it this far into this story, you may be inclined to dismiss the idea of smart cities entirely. Surely I don’t seriously believe they can work after all the horror stories I just told you, right? In the illustrious words of Leslie Nielsen in Airplane - “I am serious, and don’t call me Surely”.
Life support for Smart Cities
Canada is incredibly well positioned to foster more holistic, sustainable smart cities. As a country that consistently attracts global talent through immigration to supplement its workforce, the efficiencies that can be achieved through smart city technology are incredibly appealing. In addition, Canada has a culture of collaboration and community-orientedness that lends itself well to Living Lab initiatives - projects wherein the community, the city, universities, and industrial stakeholders come together to identify and co-create solutions to pressing and complex challenges.
Another key element contributing to our hope for Canadian smart cities is the availability of governmental and research funding to support projects. One such example is the Canada Smart Cities Challenge, which allowed many cities to pilot different technologies and explore how they may positively impact operations, services, and the community. Many other funding sources are available, including IRAP, NSERC, SSHRC, and several others.
Finally, Canada has a thriving ecosystem of communities seeking to advance smart cities on many fronts. Communitech’s future of cities, for example, helps Canadian founders with end-to-end programs that can help validate their ventures, connect with potential customers, and scale operations. Project Greenlight, in the Vancouver area, helps fast track pilots and accelerate innovation in the smart city space. MaRS Discovery District creates a community of like-minded peers and organizations to support Canadian innovation in a number of areas. And these are just a few of the organizations we’re aware of - the Canadian innovation ecosystem is thriving, and we think the future for smart cities is promising.
It’s clear that smart cities had a rough start in life. Even if we haven’t seen many significant changes to our day-to-day activities as citizens as a result of its $500 Billion market, smart cities are still in their infancy. The innovation community has learned valuable lessons over the past decade, and the smart city initiatives we see today are much more sustainable and citizen-oriented than ever before. Today, the landscape in Canada is promising for organizations seeking to positively impact the lives of citizens, bolstering welcoming innovation communities and access to funding to support projects. We are entering the era where Canada's smart cities flourish, bridging the gap between aspiration and realization, as we embrace a reimagined urban experience that celebrates progress and inclusivity. And it is our honor and pleasure to be a part of this journey.
Connect with us
We will be at MISA BC 2023 as a Gold Sponsor, having the opportunity to share more about our incredible journey with the City of Kelowna in transitioning from a smart city to an intelligent one. Join us to learn more about how Canadian municipalities can accelerate innovation, generate non-tax revenue, and gain operational efficiencies! And in the meantime, reach out to us if you’d like to delve deeper into smart cities and how this might apply to your municipality. We look forward to connecting with you!