A Discussion on Tech in Toronto // Smart City

A Discussion on Tech in Toronto: part i | Smart City
//Sidewalk Labs' project to build the Quayside community "from the internet up"

By Aisling O’Carroll

NOTE: This is a multi-part series to be released online over the next few months. See the other parts here.


How do you define a "smart city"?

Adam Vaughan (AV) | Smart City programs are policies designed to solve more than one problem with a single set of ideas. For example, timed irrigation systems for street trees that use captured water from adjoining buildings and soil sensors to regulate when and how much reclaimed water is used are a cost-effective solution for growing urban trees. These irrigation systems use water efficiently while reducing runoff into the sewers, and use natural filtration systems that preserve power while supporting trees and the natural services they provide as carbon sinks, cooling city air, and improving air quality. Using automation saves on labour and saves water while making the street more beautiful.

By implementing "smart" solutions that address multiple issues, we get more impact for scheduled investments. We can make new investments do more than just the simple task that inspired them.

Mariana Valverde (MV) | A big-data computer engineer told me that "there is no such thing as a smart city. I can build a smart streetlight, but there is no agreement on what a smart city is or might be." I agree.

People often give vague definitions for "smart city," such as "using technology to improve urban life"—but that was done by the Roman Empire when they built aqueducts for their cities, which I don't think is what people have in mind. In my view, people greatly exaggerate the differences between current digital technologies and other technologies. Assuming that the only tech that counts is electronic, people come up with phrases like "smart city" that make it seem that we live in a brave new world, when in fact we could gain a lot of wisdom about what to do and what not to do in cities if we read some urban history.

Urban life has always been technological. The word "smart" obfuscates this reality.

H.C. Robinson (HR) | In the first decade of the twenty-first century, UN population reports noted that more people were living in cities than in rural areas for the first time in human history. Recent projections indicate that two-thirds of the world population will live in cities by 2050. As dense aggregates of people who need food, water, housing, safety, and mobility, these cities will have to be "smart" to accommodate population growth sustainably and equitably (which has not been the case in many cities to date). In my view, a smart city will draw upon the design capabilities of both technology and law to achieve the aim of sustaining and promoting human life and culture in urban settings.

James Chan (JC) | I’m personally not a fan of the term "smart city" as it anchors all subsequent attempts at definitions and discussion in a context to which most people generally cannot relate. The traditional concepts and values of smart cities using technology to capture and analyze data for better decision-making is something that is hard for the average citizen to get excited about. It’s not particularly inspiring or engaging because they’re not involved in any way. We have dreamed up all kinds of new possibilities in which technology and data can be used to make things better, faster, cheaper, without applying anywhere near the same effort to re-imagine the role that citizens can play in determining, shaping, or benefiting from that change. The narrative of smart cities needs to shift from a tech-centric context to a people-centric one.

My definition or vision of smart cities is one in which citizens are encouraged, empowered, and enabled to participate fully in civic life in a digital world. That means citizens not only have the opportunities to create meaningful change in their community, but also have—in an easy and equitable fashion—the digital access, literacy, and tools to do so.

Chris Green (CG) | At its core, a "smart city" is one that harnesses technology and digital systems to further its capability in achieving its civic and operational goals. 

I would describe smart cities as an approach to city-making rather than an outcome, as technology is not an end in itself but a means to an end. The "city" is the outcome, which is important as it helps us to keep the term "smart" in check, forcing us to ask critical questions of the desired project goals. The term "smart" naturally skews toward tech-driven solutions and has, therefore, lead to a particular emphasis on operational efficiency and capability in handling complexity. However, "city" forces us to consider the inherently human and civic nature of the problem or opportunity, and reminds us that sometimes the smartest solution might also be incredibly low-tech.

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next: part ii | Design