Smart Cities Are About Helping People, Civic Leaders Agree

Andy Canham

The hype around Jetsons-esque visions of “smart cities” seems to be settling down, and now public leaders and urban planners are turning their minds to how practical use of technology can benefit the only thing that really matters to cities: people.

That was the theme of SAP’s Third Annual Smart Cities Forum in Toronto on April 23, when the likes of Toronto, San Diego, Mississauga, Cambridge (Ontario), and Bolzano (Italy) came together to discuss how they are applying digital solutions to civic problems.

Stefan Gasslitter, CIO of the City of Bolzano, a medieval gateway to the Dolomites mountain range in the Italian Alps, told the story of how the city is using blockchain and cloud technology to automate government processes.

Blockchain’s guaranteed trust has enabled the city to store digitally approved copies of documents and do away with much of the paperwork associated with public administration. The project is now seen as a pioneering success that could pave the way for blockchain-based systems for paying taxes and student loans and voting.

Staying on the subject of pioneers, City of San Diego deputy chief operating officer David Graham shed some light on why the California beach town has been called “America’s smartest city.”

San Diego’s government has partnered with the region’s electricity companies and non-profit Cleantech San Diego to digitize utilities for citizens and make them more environmentally friendly, and the city was an early adopter of infrastructure for electric vehicles (there are more than 1000 charging stations in San Diego).

But Graham didn’t use his talk to show off. “There are a lot of trendy gadgets,” he said, “but the focus should be on addressing the challenges facing communities. If your 5G Wi-Fi-enabled network is not [doing this], it’s useless.”

He said cities should pay more attention to digital literacy and include underserved communities in their plans, along with partnering with academia and industry. “Universities are not just about academia; they can also contribute to improving people’s lives,” he added. “All cities should use that resource.”

Leaders from the City of Toronto would likely agree. Chief digital transformation officer Michael Kolm said the work he and the city’s ecosystem of tech innovators, academics, and urban planners are doing is about helping people by using data in more meaningful ways.

“If Smart City 1.0 was about the technology, Smart City 2.0 is about the social and economic perspectives,” he said. “We are not going to solve these problems alone, and if we don’t have an educated workforce and make use of the talent available to us, we will not be a smart city.”

CIO Rob Meikle added that the pressure on him and his team to innovate is incredible, and the demands to deliver faster are increasing every day. Partnering with “companies that have deep pockets” and moving to a cloud-based model is helping the city catch up to that demand.

Tech enthusiasts have been paying attention to Toronto’s Quayside project, a waterfront development that will bring about “a revolution in urban life” using “ubiquitous connectivity, social networks, sensing, machine learning and artificial intelligence,” according to Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff.

And while Meikle sees the project as an exciting opportunity for the city, he’s just as focused on how technology and data can be used to tackle the biggest problems Toronto faces, such as affordable housing, transportation, and infrastructure.

Meikle wants Toronto to be a responsive city as well as a smart city, which means using data for insightful analysis that helps public servants respond to city-wide challenges more intelligently and inclusively.

Shawn Slack, CIO of the City of Mississauga, a city of 800,000 just down the road from Toronto, spoke along similar lines. He wants to bridge the digital divide in the city, which means supporting at-risk citizens, youth, new immigrants, and others in the local community by building a digital ecosystem that provides access to digital services and support.

The city’s plan is made up of several integrated elements: The Kit (laptops made available in the city’s libraries and other agencies), The Connection (Wi-Fi-enabled, voice-activated digital kiosks located throughout the city), The Hub (remote working and learning spaces), and The Ride (public transportation including e-bikes connecting to hubs and connections across the city).

While smart cities might have once been about simply making things more efficient or introducing cool gadgets, there’s now a new purpose: Using technology to tackle the biggest social and economic challenges faced by cities around the world. To echo the sentiment at the Smart Cities Forum, a city is nothing without its people, and it’s nothing if it’s not giving them all opportunities to succeed in the digital economy.

For more on this topic, see What Makes A Successful Smart City?

Andy Canham

About Andy Canham

Andy Canham is the managing director of SAP Canada.