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The Review

Smart cities: Good or bad?


Cities of the future (think self-contained pods and self-driving cars) could soon become reality.

In recent years, both technology giants and entrepreneurs have set their sights on turning today’s biggest cities into self-sustaining metropolises.

For many, the city of Toronto is ground zero for future innovation and represents real smart city potential. For example, Sidewalk Labs, Google’s innovation arm dedicated to urban innovation, recently signed a deal with Waterfront Toronto to build a tech-focused neighbourhood on its shores. The revitalization project would use data-driven technology to transform the area and improve everything from transit to connectivity.

From science fiction to science fact

Of course, Google isn’t the first company to see smart city potential in one of Canada’s biggest cities. Entrepreneurs over the years have worked hard to create made-in-Canada tech to fuel future smart cities around the world. 

“The global smart city market is expected to reach $88.7 billion by 2025, according to market research company @NavigantRSRCH.”

In response to increased interest, the federal government launched its Smart Cities Challenge last year. The initiative gives municipalities and Canadian firms up to $50 million to come up with high-tech solutions. Meanwhile, Montreal’s Surveyor is building cloud-based software that optimizes how much energy-smart buildings utilize and Kitchener’s Miovision has discovered how to reduce commute times in large urban centres through public data.

Using cellular technology, Miovision adjusts traffic lights in real time. This means drivers are able to get from point A to B safer and quicker.  

“We’re basically putting …. an industrial cellphone into the little grey boxes that you see on the side of the road, and all we have to do is drill a hole in the side of the little cabinet, put an antenna on it and then we’re connected,” explained CEO Kurtis McBride in an interview with CBC.

The problem with smart cities

For tech’s early adopters and forward-thinking businesses, a focus on smart city technology could end up being a huge boon. While on the other hand, better-connected cities have the potential to widen the already growing gap between the rich and poor.

When it comes to regulation, not enough people are talking about the balance between innovation and inclusivity, explains Pamela Robinson. The associate professor, from the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Toronto Metropolitan University, recently participated in a panel that broke down how smart technology could impact Toronto. “We need to understand how this kind of technology maps itself on all of the people of Toronto and we need to start asking more people what they desire from this technology and what their fears are,” she adds.

Smart city issues entrepreneurs should be wary of:

  • Privacy: Cities create and improve smart services by collecting vast amounts of personal data. Safeguarding personal information will be crucial and necessary as connectivity grows.
  • Government: Public-private partnerships have emerged as one of the most popular ways to help finance big infrastructure projects. Learning how to navigate these tricky relationships is crucial. Entrepreneurs looking for national guidance an look to the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships or locally to Civic Tech TO.

Building smarter cities also mean dealing with new technology that can disrupt and threaten livelihoods. Just like how Uber and Airbnb transformed the taxi industry, smart cities can do the same for other traditional sectors. With disruption comes potential labour upheavals that can leave the disenfranchised in a vulnerable position.

The future is here

It’s too early to know how Sidewalk Labs and other smart city technology will impact the city of Toronto. However, it is clear that interest and potential aren’t going away anytime soon. According to the National League of Cities, a U.S.-based advocacy group,  66 per cent of cities plan to invest in smart city technology.