Code for Canada
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Code for Canada

Using Civic Tech to Imagine the Vancouver of the Future

A hack night led by Civic Tech YVR helped the Cities of Vancouver and Surrey make the shortlist for the Smart Cities Challenge.

Members of the Civic Tech Vancouver community write ideas for smart city infrastructure on post-it notes. (Photo by Cheryn Wong)

When Infrastructure Canada announced it’s Smart Cities Challenge last winter, urban planners across the country started to talk about how data and technology could turn their municipalities into the towns and cities of tomorrow.

But the cities of Vancouver and Surrey didn’t take that route. Instead of starting with data and tech, they started with people, and actively sought community input to collaborate on their smart city planning.

That led Civic Tech Vancouver — a community of innovators that examine civic issues through the lens of tech and design — to reach out to the City of Vancouver’s civic engagement office, and propose an event for the public to pitch their own smart city ideas.

The City agreed, and on a cold night in February, members of Vancouver’s civic tech community filled into the Engagement Lab — a civic innovation space provided by the City of Vancouver — to discuss how a data-driven city could be inclusive of every resident’s voice.

Civic Tech Vancouver hack night participants write down what an “un-smart” city might look like in order to arrive at an ideal type for a smart city in Vancouver and Surrey. (Photo by Cheryn Wong)

Civic Tech Vancouver co-founder Leah Bae used a novel facilitation process to get at the core of what participants wanted. She asked them what was the worst case-scenario for a smart city project.

“We took the main themes that the city wanted us to work on, and we asked what an ‘un-smart city’ would look like. So we came up with the stupidest ideas for it, and then we flipped them into smart ones,” said Bae.

The group came up with over a dozen ideas for the cities to chew over, from getting data out of PDFs and using more useful and structured formats like XML, to creating a smart card that combines access to both city recreation and library services.

Cheryn Wong, a public engagement specialist with the city, said the exercise was a great way to get people to think in a less linear way about smart cities. “I thought it was a great idea to turn things sideways, and do the opposite. We’re so quick to hop to the solutions first, sometimes it’s good to step back and look at the problem.”

The ideas that garnered the most attention touched on a key problem in the region: mobility. Like many of North America’s growing metropolises, the pace of residential construction far outstrips the speed at which new transportation infrastructure is built. The city is building out its SkyTrain network, but many parts of the metropolitan area still remain unserved.

With these issues in mind, the group proposed autonomous buses that sync their routes with air and ground level sensors, and smart traffic lights that gather weather and traffic information. They also proposed a bike parking dashboard and finder, similar to one created by the Civic Tech Toronto community.

When Vancouver and Surrey finally decided to concentrate their bid on two autonomous vehicle (AV) corridors, they selected four of Civic Tech Vancouver’s ideas to improve mobility.

An artists’ conceptualization of the AV corridors in Vancouver and Surrey. (Image from the #SmarterTogether Smart Cities proposal).

Four months later, Vancouver and Surrey’s proposal made the Smart Cities challenge shortlist, beating out other big-name contenders like Toronto and Calgary. The Vancouver and Surrey team are now preparing for their final costed proposal, with the $50 million dollar prize-winning city to be announced in Spring 2019.

Cheryn Wong believes there’s still a lot of room for the City of Vancouver to collaborate with the civic tech community. “All we ever want in government is more civic participation, and often times it’s hard to reach into these types of networks; having these groups is a real asset.”

Leah Bae says the government’s willingness to engage with groups like Civic Tech Vancouver was a key reason for their success. “I think this was a really good example of communities and governments collaborating, and I can’t think of many cities where leaders from the tech sector are invited to the table.”

Indeed, starting a discusion between the public and the government is only the first step to realizing the smart cities of our dreams.