Using Technology To Make Toronto A Responsive City

Rob Meikle

The term “smart city” tends to evoke utopian ideas of pristine technological urban landscapes brimming with robots, sensors, and smiling faces. This can cause people to get carried away and forget that cities first need to focus on using technology and data to improve the quality of life for all the people who live, work, and play there.

Consider the column inches taken up by the more exciting aspects of Toronto’s Quayside project. In many ways it’s the perfect smart city story: artist’s renditions of data-driven dreamscapes alongside promises of “a revolution in urban life” brought about by “ubiquitous connectivity, social networks, sensing, machine learning and artificial intelligence,” as Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff put it.

But how do we ensure cities don’t become enclaves for the elites? How do we keep them from becoming playgrounds for big business while residents and their quality of life are pushed to the side? These are the questions all cities must keep in mind.

Think of running a city like being a doctor: If a patient is having respiratory problems, or has high blood pressure or arthritis, you wouldn’t simply give them a bionic arm. Quayside is an amazing opportunity for Toronto, but it must happen alongside more humble use of technology and data that takes aim at the biggest problems we face as a city: affordable housing, transportation, infrastructure, and so on.

So instead of just being a “smart city,” we should aim to be a “responsive city” as well. Being responsive is about being data-rich and having the ability to use that data for insightful analysis that allows us to respond to city-wide challenges more intelligently and inclusively.

I write this the day after an ice storm hit Toronto and left many residents without power and struggling to get to their workplaces and schools. What if we could have done predictive analysis that helped us better prepare for such an event, such as simulating its impact?

Being responsive is also about using technology and data in ways that keep all citizens in mind, including the marginalized and vulnerable. We can’t have all the best technology while our services are beyond the budgets of most who live here. And we can’t have digital access in privileged areas while it’s limited in other neighborhoods. A responsive city focuses on making life better for everyone.

That also includes closing the digital divide. With one in four children in Toronto now living in low-income households and the world becoming increasingly digital, we must ensure citizens are given affordable access to the digital tools they need to be relevant in the rapidly-evolving job market.

These are all huge challenges, made harder to overcome by the fact that City Council must balance our budget every year and in turn, IT organizations have to make the difficult decisions on what technology we invest in. One way to overcome this challenge is to increase our collaboration with industry, universities, and incubators across the city so that we can fully take advantage of the power of private sector innovation and academic expertise.

We’re already well on the way to doing that. The City of Toronto has published open data sets for the tech community to use as it pleases since 2009, and in September 2017 we opened the Civic Innovation Office after receiving a $500,000 per year over three years grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. The Civic Innovation Office is a massive step forward in the city’s mission to build an innovation ecosystem that co-creates urban solutions that solve real civic issues.

We’re also committing to taking a measured approach to legislation of services such as Uber, understanding that the sharing economy ultimately brings with it opportunities to create a more inclusive and dynamic city and allowing the app to operate within a framework that makes sense and protects the data privacy of citizens.

Elsewhere, our partnership with Waze is helping us improve traffic management, finally giving us a basis from which we can start chipping away at commute times in the city.

We’re tackling the digital divide by ensuring all our libraries have computers with Internet access, Wi-Fi, and Microsoft Office, as well as launching initiatives such as the Digital Literacy Day, offering free courses and programs that allow users who don’t have Internet access at home to borrow Wi-Fi hotspots, and partnering with organizations that want to contribute end-of-lease laptops.

What all these partnerships have in common is that they’re helping us build a better, more economically and socially equal, and prosperous Toronto by using technology and data in ways that would have taken us much longer to achieve on our own.

But as we take advantage of industry innovation, we must ensure we protect the best interests of our residents. That means modernizing our legislation and adapting to disruption and the evolving needs of our residents. We’re learning as we go, and no one can say with any confidence what the city of the future looks like. One thing’s for sure: The focus must be on making it “responsive,” not just “smart.”

I will be talking about responsive cities alongside some of the world’s leading public sector and technology innovators at the SAP Smart Cities Forum on April 23.

Rob Meikle

About Rob Meikle

Rob Meikle is the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the City of Toronto, Canada's largest city, sixth largest government and home to a diverse population of about 2.7 million people.