On Smart Cities, Capitalism, Procurement, and Funding.

Smart cities are cities that use technology, and particularly hardware, to improve the delivery and development of urban services and spaces. The thing with technology is that it is only as effective as the policies and ideas it’s seeking to serve. In Toronto, our long-term strategic plan is not the playbook we’re all following. Our supposed values and ideals — are we using technology for them? Or are we asking the private sector to step in, and to effectively step over both the residents of this city and its immensely skilled bureaucracy, to help us think about what we need in a smart city and why? I’d wager, based on history, that it’s the latter.

Large corporations are not well positioned to put the most precarious residents at the top of their lists when designing and developing tech to support city service delivery. The recent federal budget included $300 million dollars for smart cities. In an ideal case, no money should be dedicated to smart cities, because all the projects and ideas and work that happen from here on out in all cities will need to include technology. Hiving technology off to the side — whether it’s as “smart” for cities or “digital” for the province or the feds, is a mistake. It needs to become central to any work that is done.

That $300 million could do something to create some housing that we need so desperately, in Toronto, and elsewhere, in Canada. We shouldn’t be throwing tech terms and budgets around in an aim to sound like we’re on top of the economic development opportunity that is tech while allowing larger and more pressing issues to go unfunded.

The private sector is doing what it is expected to do with government technology — we exist within a capitalist space. And let’s be equally as clear about our governments — they have failed to define and reform how they should work with the technology sector to get the right outcomes. That’s why procurement reform is finally happening, but it took far too long with a string of big failures to begin this work. And you’ll note, smart cities is coming at us faster than procurement reform, which means we are set up for more mistakes in tech purchasing.

There is an enduring conflation of technology and data with start-ups and the private sector. There is no need for this. There are skilled and knowledgeable technologists within government. There are staff that should be driving the requirements and priorities behind technology investments. There are boring improvements to make that don’t need any “cutting-edge smart city” tech — improvements that will truly help government staff best serve residents. Precarious residents. Poor people. Getting to the place where we support this work will require an undoing and redoing of how tech infrastructure is spread across all levels of government, but let’s make that our problem. And that’s not smart cities or digital. That’s government in 2017.

So how can we do better, within the constraints that capitalism (and particularly, neoliberalism) pose on city operations? There is good news on this front — governments have worked this out already, but may not have realized that it applies to technology.

When the government currently buys things (aka, procurement) — such as the design and creation of a park from a landscape architect — it makes sure that public consultation is a piece of how the infrastructure is delivered. If you bid on the planning and creation of a park, part of your bid must explain how you will consult with the public on how that park should be built. So for IT, while most parts of the process need reform, this is a key piece to borrow from the old processes — consultation. Digital infrastructure purchase and creation needs just as much public oversight at the physical type.

Photo by Nick Harris — https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

No dollars that go to the private sector for smart city initiatives should go without a consultation piece built into them. For whatever reason, we keep assuming that no one knows better than the private sector when it comes to IT. What we should be doing is following a well-tested model to ensure that anyone that builds IT solutions (read: operational support systems) must take its requirements from its most vital stakeholders — city staff and Toronto’s residents. And if government procurement is so messed up that the government can’t make space for this process, then the private sector should force itself to do it. If the private sector wants to rebuild credibility to work in the IT consulting space, it needs to earn it. Being open about process and insisting on it would do much good to the reputations of the companies getting this government money. Our money.

This will also open up a space to talk about data and open data and private data and open cities. Anything to do with tech leaves a trail of user data. Governments must ensure they are building processes to include everyone who will have their data used in any smart city discussion in the conversation.

But back to priorities. The priorities are not to make cities smart, or even wise. The first priority has to be making our cities just. And prioritizing spending to get everyone up to a minimum status of quality of life would be the right move. Because again — smart or digital isn’t a new idea or trend, it’s how the city and province and federal government have to do all of their work. As we figure all of this out, we’ll be able to welcome technology into our operations at all levels of government, but we must absolutely retain the idea that it can be done in-house, it can be a reason to expand and build secure jobs, not cut them, it can help connect and further services providers, not only make them efficient.

In an ideal world we can do things concurrently — keep developing our technology and infrastructure to support our broader city-building goals, including smart city ideas, in partnership with the private sector. It’s possible. But before we get to doing things concurrently we need a solid agreement to slow down and step back. Technology can be an impressive agent to support good work — let’s make sure governments are applying it to the most needed work, and the most impactful work. We can’t scaffold smart cities onto the highly troubled operational core we’ve got now. We need to get our priorities straight.