Smart Cities Need Smart People

A summary of Code for Canada and Evergreen Canada’s discussion paper on smart cities

The Code for Canada team is pretty fortunate. In the past year, we’ve visited communities across the country, and shared exciting discussions with innovators from every sector — from the public to private and non-profit — and every level of government.

One phrase that keeps coming up during these conversations is “smart cities.”

The relationship between digital technologies, data, city-building, civic engagement and policy-making is on everyone’s mind. It’s hardly surprising; Infrastructure Canada launched its Smart Cities Challenge in late 2017, inviting municipal and community leaders to imagine how technology, data and new partnerships can help them achieve meaningful outcomes for residents. Sidewalk Labs’ project exploring smart cities possibilities along Toronto’s waterfront is making international headlines and sparking discussion about the future of technology in our cities. And on March 3, civic hackathons were held in seven major cities across Canada to celebrate International Open Data Day.

You could say Canada is having a smart cities moment.

Code for Canada’s latest contribution to that moment is a discussion paper, co-published with Evergreen Canada, entitled “How to Be Smart(er) in Mid-Sized Cities in Ontario.” The paper gathers the perspectives of 15 experts alongside leading research to examine the implications of data and technology on mid-sized cities (urban areas with populations between 50,000 and 500,000). Drawing on case studies and on-the-ground experience, the report offers nine suggestions for communities looking to leverage new technologies and digital methods.

Download the report

Although focused on mid-sized cities in Ontario, the insights contained in the report are relevant for communities of any size or region.

Members of Civic Tech Toronto participate in a Community Brainstorming Session about smart cities and Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project in Toronto in December 2017. (Photo: Civic Tech Toronto)

A central takeaway from the research is how central people — community members, civic tech volunteers, city staff, city managers and others — are to successful smart cities projects. We found communities that had successfully adopted and implemented smart cities tools — everything from high-speed broadband to ride-sharing services and smart streetlights — put people at the centre of the process.

“We found communities that had successfully adopted and implemented smart cities tools … put people at the centre of the process.”

With that in mind, we want to highlight some of the report’s recommendations for getting smart people involved in your smart cities plans.

Identify needs first, technology second

Before adopting any particular technology, smart cities leaders engage residents (they talk with people) and conduct user research to identify real needs in their communities. Getting municipal data onto the blockchain sounds cool — and could be incredibly useful — but it might not address the issues that really matter to your residents.

Let the community in

Across Canada, engaged and tech-savvy residents are sowing the seeds of innovation in their cities through local civic tech meetups and hacknights. Smart cities leaders look to these groups as a resource to fill knowledge gaps within the government, and as adjunct capacity for digital projects. Successful smart cities seek out these groups, engage with them, and act as a lever to amplify the benefits they’re already providing residents.

Enable and empower public servants

Leaders in smart cities identify staff who are pushing an innovative agenda, celebrate them, and provide support in scaling up their work. Smart cities initiatives are as much (or more) about new ways of working as they are about new technologies. That change isn’t easy, but it can be made easier by empowering public servants to experiment, to listen to users, to work in the open, and to forge new kinds of partnerships.

The City of Guelph’s Civic Accelerator program is one of the case studies examined in Code for Canada and Evergreen’s new report “How to be Smart(er) in Mid-Sized Cities in Ontario.”

We may have “Code” in our name, but our values are all about people: we’re laser focused on the needs and experiences of users, committed to enabling public servants to better serve the public, and to empowering residents to use technology to shape their communities. Those are our values, and as our latest report shows, they’re the values of smart cities too.

The smart cities conversation has often focused on new technologies — self-driving cars, connected sensors, distributed ledgers or machine learning algorithms — while glossing over the human element of innovation. With the publication of “How to Be Smart(er) in Mid-Sized Cities in Ontario” we hope to change that conversation in Canada, reorienting it towards the people make their cities smarter.

Technology alone won’t make Canadian cities more equitable, sustainable, resilient or efficient. But when used as a tool to empower people who are challenging the status quo and striving to serve residents better, it can address all those issues — and more.

These are just some of the insights contained in Code for Canada and Evergreen’s new report on smart cities. Download the report today to read the rest of our nine recommendations for smart cities leaders.