How Toronto is Becoming a Smarter City

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How Toronto is Becoming a Smarter City

All the answers are in the data.

Think of the term “smart city,” and what comes to mind is a metropolis run from a liquid-cooled data centre in the bowels of an anonymous government building—a setting straight from a sci-fi flick.

While City Hall’s space-age design and appearance in Star Trek certainly plays along with the technological aspirations of smart cities, Toronto has focused on, perhaps less sexily, data collection.

And without these science-fiction aspirations, Toronto’s future as a smart city could weigh heaviest in the hands of its citizens—not on the muscle of supercomputers.

The goal of creating a smart city is to improve the city’s environmental, social, and economical statuses with the use of technology.

Mark Kleinman, director of economic policy for the Mayor of London, England, says smart systems aren’t just about numbers and increasing the efficiency of metropolitan areas.

“Open data on its own is simply not enough,” he told a room of about 100 at Toronto’s first Smart Cities Summit on Thursday. “A city’s data includes information from the private sector, crowdsourced, and commercial data.”

Open data can include traffic and transit monitoring, crime reporting, and weather patterns. If it’s quantifiable, it’s useful.

That’s what the City of Boston has put into practice. The city’s performance manager, Christopher Dwelley, is responsible for monitoring Boston’s performance based on data collected by its government, and he says the City’s initiative to improve its services through data, called CityScore, has made a major impact on how Boston runs. The biggest change to date is improved EMS response times.

“The mayor noticed we weren’t meeting our response time goal,” Dwelley says. “We realized that the call volume [outweighed] the available staff and vehicles to meet our target response times. [By changing the structure] in this year’s budget cycle, we were able to add 10 new vehicles to the fleet, which increases the city’s capacity to go out there and answer calls and ultimately save lives.”

While Kleinman says Toronto has “absolutely fantastic” assets to exploit, regional cooperation and focused leadership is both a challenge and vital to future success.

“Governance is always wrong,” Kleinman says, arguing that the footprint of a city like Toronto is too large for one unit of government to represent and develop without issues. And though access to open data is helpful, it can’t be useful unless the City asks the right questions of citizens, and makes the best decisions for the most people with the given information.

So what is a city on the verge of becoming smart to do? In Toronto’s case, it’s about shaping the city based on the findings from both open and user-end data. The concept is simple: let the people’s voices guide the actions of the government officials and companies responsible for developing the city.

With tools available and residents willing to supply data, all that remains is for the City to launch projects that quickly identify and solve the problems of a particular area.

Lucy Casacia, vice president of cities and infrastructure projects at Siemens Canada, says available land is a big asset for Toronto’s future: from an engineering standpoint, re-purposing key areas of land, removing industrial installations, and rebuilding them underground.

Aside from burying the existing land hogs, space exists in underdeveloped parts of the city to make new, hyper-connected neighbourhoods with the latest and greatest technology baked in.

Waterfront Toronto’s revitalization project takes this into account, with 110,000 mixed income residential units and roughly 40,000 employment spaces, and advanced infrastructure in place from the get-go.

Vickery Bowles, the Toronto Public Library’s city librarian, says that the Library is a “catalyst” for making Toronto a smarter city, and that access to digital technology is the great equalizer.

Bowles said “lineups were out the door” when the Library added scanners to its roster of publicly accessible tech. She added that the Library placed equal importance on digital content creation, audio and visual and physical, with workshops for devices like Arduino boards and 3D printers proving popular with the public.

Publicly funded services to keep a city’s population up to date shouldn’t be undervalued, and neither should individual efforts of companies and communities to become smarter in every way.

Rick Huijbregts, Cisco Canada’s vice president of innovation, says Toronto has built some of the company’s most impressive smart initiatives “from the bottom up,” citing businesses’ independent decisions to make their buildings smarter—like the Bay Adelaide Centre’s integration of IBM’s Internet of Things project to automate building operations.

Toronto is taking steps to become smarter at government level. The City installed 476,000 automated water meters that link to MyWaterToronto.com, an online dashboard which allows users to closely monitor their usage and billing—all outside the parameters of the sci-fi world.

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