Let’s Talk Smart Cities: City of Montreal

ICTC respectfully acknowledges that the Montreal smart city engagement session took place on the unceded traditional territory of the Kanien’kehà:ka (Mohawk). These lands, which comprise modern-day Montreal, have long served as a site of meeting and exchange amongst many other Indigenous groups including the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Huron/Wendat, the Abenaki, and the Anishinaabeg.

Photo by Michael Descharles on Unsplash

On March 31, 2022, the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) partnered with Récolte, Laboratoire d’innovation urbaine de Montréal, Cité-ID LivingLab, Arche Innovation, and Smart City Experience to host ICTC’s ninth smart cities community engagement session. The engagement session was attended by 34 participants on Zoom, split between both English and French language breakout rooms. Participants included Montreal residents, members of the local tech community, public servants, and public interest and advocacy organizations.

This session was the most recent instalment of ICTC’s multi-year smart cities research initiative. This initiative engages community members across Canada to better understand their experiences and opinions with regards to smart cities.

A summary of key themes that emerged during the group discussion is provided below, followed by information about ICTC’s community partners.

Key Themes for Montreal’s Smart Future

Accessibility, Equality, Relevance

To begin, attendees were invited to discuss the term “smart city” and express what that term meant to them. Attendee responses touched on a variety of topics, including sustainable mobility and data governance. Participants stressed that technological innovation should serve citizen needs, rather than result from “ innovation and [efficiency] driven technological solutionism.” These concerns appear well justified. Research shows innovation that is primarily driven by technological optimization and market demand (rather than citizen needs) risks low public engagement and negative impacts on privacy and equity.

“W e don’t want to do the smart city for technology’s sake; we want to do it for the community.”

I think you always have to think about how technology serves people.”

Participants said it was important to use technology to support people of vulnerable and marginalized communities. More specifically, participants noted the importance of actively seeking out input from these communities. Research shows that community consultation can effectively include marginalized communities in decision-making.

Smart city means making sure everyone has a say in smart city decisions.”

I think as we consider what smart cities are, we need to make sure no one is left behind and take into consideration the needs of everyone, especially the most marginalized within our communities.”

“How do you make sure the people who don’t have a voice have a say in these smart city decisions that will impact them? I think that’s the “smart” aspect [of a smart city]: using the information available to us to make decisions that benefit everyone.”

In some cases, the best investment in the welfare of vulnerable groups, or even the community as a whole, may not be the most “high-tech.” For example, one participant highlighted how simple technologies, such as noise-making traffic lights, can improve the life of blind residents by helping them cross streets safely. An inclusive and informed approach to tech adoption is aligned with current international standards for open smart cities, developed by Open North, which recommends that cities “[take] proportionate measures to ensure that access to digital services, skills, and knowledge is equal, regardless of gender, physical ability, or level of income.”

Participants drew attention to the needs of senior citizens, expressing concerns that this group is being left behind in the digital transformation. Indeed, pre-pandemic research shows that while internet use among Montreal residents who are 65 or older rose to 74% in 2020, internet use rates among the elderly remain substantially lower than for the youth and middle-aged. For seniors making less than $20,000 per year, internet use rates are particularly low, and almost 60% of respondents in this group do not consider themselves to be internet users.

“W e can’t accelerate our digital transition if citizens don’t have access to the internet or don’t know how to use services…. It’s really a question of age. We need interventions to try and help people or accompany older people to use digital services.”

“The elderly who don’t use the internet are completely disconnected from some of the [technology adoption/smart city] information.”

Green Smart City and Sustainable Mobility

Participants emphasized that pursuing sustainability was an important part of making Montreal a smart city. Citizens raised concerns related to heat islands (areas of intensified heat resulting from the loss of vegetation in rural areas), traffic congestion, and potential extreme weather events resulting from climate change. These concerns are well founded. Several heat islands exist in Montreal, with negative health effects disproportionately impacting low-income communities such as Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie and Saint-Leonard. In addition, according to a recent analysis, Montreal ranks as the second most traffic congested city in Canada after Toronto. With the negative impacts of climate change expected to escalate, participants stressed the importance of making smart cities sustainable.

“For a city to be smart it needs to be aware of its environmental footprint because environmental impacts cannot be ignored.”

A major source of greenhouse gas emissions in Quebec is the transport sector. Participants suggested a variety of solutions to the large carbon footprint of transport. These included low emission vehicles, smart public transit, electric bicycles, mobility as a service (MaaS), as well as low-tech options such as increasing the number of pedestrian streets. Participants said transportation policy should be informed by data and its analysis to better understand how people move around the city.

Montreal is already a hub for sustainable mobility in Canada. The city is home to various innovation centres, including a hub for electric ground transportation, Propulsion Quebec, a collection of over 30 transport-focused research centres, the Interuniversity Research Center on Enterprise Networks, Logistics, and Transportation, and the transport and logistics cluster Cargo M. Montreal is also a center for artificial intelligence (AI) and has used this expertise to develop transport solutions, particularly for solving urban traffic and shipping challenges. The city’s Climate Plan includes commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through various measures such as electrifying their bus fleet, increasing the share of electric vehicles in the downtown core and adding more charging stations for them. Participants noted a few other green mobility strategies that are already making Montreal greener.

In the evening, we no longer need a personal car to get around Montreal. We can just do that with public transit, shared vehicles, , and everything else.”

We’re not going to have completely sustainable mobility overnight, but we’re starting pilot projects for autonomous vehicles to see if we can replace bus routes.”

It is important to note that replacing existing high-emission public transportation with new autonomous transportation options may have negative or mixed environmental impacts.

Moreover, participants stressed that sustainable transportation projects must prioritize accessibility and inclusion to mitigate potential inequities. One study, for example, finds that transport infrastructure was the common element connecting low-income populations and BIPOC communities to disproportionate exposure to traffic and air pollution, putting these communities “ at higher risk for adverse health outcomes.” To mitigate these and other transportation inequities, Montreal residents emphasized the importance of making sustainable mobility tech accessible to all citizens.

“Accessible transportation is a huge priority. We need to learn from other cities that have used automation and data to improve transportation. More isolated communities don’t always benefit [from these improvements]. Transformational doesn’t always mean accessible.”

Leading the Charge on Data Governance and Privacy

Participants said inclusivity and ethics are essential for Montreal’s future as a smart city. However, Montreal’s commitment to privacy polarized the group. Some participants expressed support for Montreal’s commitment to data governance. Others believed the city needed to do more to ensure data privacy, or expressed anxiety or a lack of awareness of the city’s approach to this area.

Montreal adopted a Digital Data Charter in October 2020. The city gave us part of the Smart City Challenge budget to ensure principles like inclusion were effectively applied.”

“There’s a loss of transparency. We don’t even really know what the security systems are for smart cities that we have in place…. [The city should] at least tell us what [they] have put in place in terms of security. What is the data that is collected from our private lives?”

It’s possible that these conflicting opinions rise from a failure to communicate the city’s current approach. In October 2020, Montreal adopted a Digital Data Charter that “establishes ethical criteria for the collection, management, and use of digital data by the city’s various departments and boroughs.” The Charter outlines solutions to “meet the many challenges posed by the use of massive data” in 13 principles, including the “Right to Privacy” and “Inclusion.” However, the progress that Montreal has made in data governance does not appear to be recognized, seeing as many interested citizens lack awareness of its key principles. One participant specifically mentioned that Montreal’s data charter as been “ less known by the general public” despite the city’s “ consistent “ efforts to ensure responsible governance of citizens’ data.

Polarization also emerged between participants on the extent to which personal data should be collected in the interest of public safety. One participant viewed safety as paramount and encouraged the use of technology to enhance it. But another respondent was more skeptical about the public’s acceptance of measures such as facial recognition.

I think we should use information to ensure the safety of citizens because a dangerous city empties quickly. I’ve been to some cities where you see massive disparities. You have some areas that are safe, economically and culturally vibrant, next to other areas which have been abandoned to crime. We don’t want that.”

In the U.S., there’s a lot of technology that’s been used for [public safety] purposes. Not all of it is good. In Las Vegas, for example, I heard there was going to be facial recognition. And I don’t know if it was implemented, but when I talked to people on the street there about facial recognition to identify criminals, they didn’t seem to want that. I know they’ve banned facial recognition in some places.”

It should be noted that the existing Montreal Data Charter, which has been passed for nearly two years, specifically bans the collection of biometric data, as well as the non-consensual collection of facial recognition data.

The use of biometrics, in particular facial recognition data, has seen limited adoption and several outright bans. While some branches of the U.S. federal government, such as Customs and Border Patrol, use facial recognition data, numerous jurisdictions in the United States have banned facial recognition software, including King’s County (the most populous county in Washington state, which includes the City of Seattle) and the City of Portland (Oregon). However, there is some evidence that rising levels of crime in some U.S. cities, along with lobbying efforts, are changing the regulatory atmosphere regarding facial recognition. In June, the state of Virginia lifted a ban on the police use of facial recognition technology a year after banning it.

Balancing Growth With Affordability

Participants described Montreal as a “vibrant” community and technology hub. Some noted the city’s ability to draw international firms seeking technical talent, as well as to attract talent from abroad. Indeed, Montreal the city’s was the third largest beneficiary of “brain gain” between 2015 and 2020. In this time, the city graduated created 15,772 technology jobs in the city, net of new graduates in local ICT education programs.

Montreal is a big hub for AI. It is attracting a lot of software companies from all over the place and now even big companies are announcing that they are coming here… And we also have many professors and specialists in smart transportation, health, internet of things.”

However, Montreal’s status as a technology hub was seen by some study participants as challenging the city’s affordability. Participants drew attention to the situation of long-time residents struggling to afford property in a city populated with increasing numbers of highly paid technology professionals and skilled immigrants. Montreal’s housing market is becoming less affordable, with prices rising relative to salaries at even higher rates than Vancouver. Some experts have suggested “big corporations” are contributing the reduced supply of housing accessible to families. However, the extent to which affordability issues can be linked to high tech salaries or immigration is unclear. Rising property values can also reflect numerous other factors, such as selling practices, mortgage rates, land availability, and the housing stock.

“Companies often come here to recruit people because we have the talent. There’s a French company specialized in blockchain, and they are recruiting around 200 people around here. When you have all these companies coming and looking for talent, that may cause salaries to rise because the people they are hiring have lots of opportunities. And with rising salaries, that starts to affect affordability for others.”

Speeding Up Municipal Innovation Processes

In terms of smart cities policy challenges in Montreal, some participants felt that the process of technology adoption had been overly bureaucratic, overly analytical, and slow. They felt this slow pace of adoption was not enticing for private sector partners.

“In Quebec, unfortunately, I think we are always on committees. We analyze, we postpone projects, and nothing happens.”

“Often cities aim for a big project. They talk for ages to be sure that everyone agrees about stuff before anything is done. And by the end of that long process, the technology may have changed, and the needs of the community may have changed, and you may be on the verge of doing something that isn’t even relevant to the community anymore.”

“If you want tech people to be interested, you need to invite them to create something innovative. If you’re taking three years to talk about implementing [a tech project], by the end of that time, that technology is at least three years old before the project even begins. That’s not attractive for people who are on the cutting edge.”

It is unclear how unique Montreal’s struggles with inefficiency are. Montreal’s performance in smart city rankings may provide some perspective. Among 50 global cities with populations of 3 million or higher, Montreal ranks 17 in “Future of Cities” index, which aggregates 14 measures, including related to connectivity, mobility, sustainability, etc. Important to consider along Montreal’s ranking in this index is the city’s relatively small population (4.3 million in 2021) compared to most other cities within its category. Only four cities that scored higher than Montreal on the index had a smaller metropolitan population: Rotterdam, Seattle, Manchester, and Minneapolis. Population size is relevant to smart cities because research by the Smart Cities Council finds that larger communities tend to prioritize smart city initiatives more than smaller ones.

Conclusions and Next Steps

All in all, Montreal smart city engagement participants said it was important to scrutinize smart city solutions for accessibility, safety, inclusion, and sustainability. That said, they also outlined the pressing need for municipal actors to move smart city projects out of the planning stages as quickly as possible and recognize that technical solutions to complex problems are almost never perfect on the first go.

Participants listed a few key strategies that could help the city balance quicker adoption with an inclusive, green, and safe mindset.

  1. Adopting an agile approach to tech adoption. Participants specifically mentioned breaking projects down into smaller parts and revising iteratively as a priority.
  2. Consolidating the many smart city-related organizations in Quebec into a smaller number of organizations with clearer objectives.
  3. Deliberately engaging Montreal’s technology industry more in decision-making and discussions related to smart cities.

Although participants acknowledged that it will be difficult to achieve the vision for Montreal as a smart, sustainable city, they were optimistic. In the words of one participant, We are moving forward, and we know where we are going.”

Partners

Récolte
Louis Lafortune
Procurement Solutions Lead
Récolte (Harvest)

Récolte is a social enterprise utilizing collective intelligence and community mobilization to catalyze solutions for local, sustainable food practices. The collective deploys two main programs: the Local and Integrated Food System of Montreal (SALIM), instigated by Montréal en Commun; and the Nourish Innovation Program for Social Innovation in agri-food. Among other things, Récolte supports agri-food organizations in developing entrepreneurial solutions, strengthens the decision-making of stakeholders in the agri-food ecosystem, mobilizes communities around agri-food initiatives, and shares knowledge and best-practices in agri-food.

Laboratoire d’innovation urbaine de Montréal
Marjolaine St. Arnaud works
Innovation Counsellor — Laboratoire d’innovation urbaine de Montréal (Urban Innovation Laboratory of Montreal)
Ville de Montreal (City of Montreal)

The Laboratoire d’innovation urbaine de Montréal (LIUM) is a major force driving the adoption of smart city policies at the City of Montreal. The LIUM oversaw Montreal’s application for the federally funded Smart Cities Challenge, in which Montreal received a first-place prize of $50 million CAD in 2019. Currently, the prize funds LIUM’s various smart city projects across three areas: mobility (3 projects), food production (6 projects), and data and regulatory experimentation (4 projects). The LIUM works with 30 partners to deploy and support its projects.
Geneviève Baril
Co-director, Strategy and Innovation
Cité-ID Living Lab

Gabriela Manrique Rueda
Research Analyst
Cité-ID LivingLab

The Cite-ID LivingLab is an action-research laboratory at the École Nationale d’Administration Publique (ENAP) in Montreal focused on urban resilience — helping cities develop resilience to complex risks including climate change, terrorism, natural disasters, and other crises such as health crises. The Living Lab’s key research areas are organizational capacities, science for policy, social and technological innovation, smart cities and data governance, risk governance and climate change, and recovery and social ties. The Living Lab works with a range of actors across Canada from city managers, private enterprises, non-profit organizations, and academic researchers.
Noah Redler
President, Arche Innovation
Co-founder, Smart City Experience

Arche Innovation is a consulting firm, specializing in the development and implementation of innovation processes and organizational transformation using the innovation ecosystem, open innovation, and experiential learning methodologies. Arche’s clientele includes public sector branches, private companies, academic and research organizations, accelerators, incubators, and entrepreneurship training programs.

Smart City Experience is a virtual interactive event which brings together global actors in the smart cities community, including municipalities, community organizations, businesses, and citizen groups.

Originally published at https://www.digitalthinktankictc.com.

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