Meeting of the Minds 2013 recaps government play in Smart Cities agenda

"Just image the possibilities," urged Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson at the Toronto installment of The Meeting of the Minds  event held at the Evergreen Brick Works last week. Offered to attendees at this seventh summit on urban connectivity and sustainability, Mathieson’s advice characterized much of the conference messaging. While the event focuses on discussion of current urban questions, many of the answers put forth represent an exercise in visualization — of what technology-enabled solutions can accomplish if applied in a creative and cooperative fashion. Innovation is a watchword at Meeting of the Minds and the conference invites leading thinkers in design, academia, government and industry to put their heads together to work out the means to stimulate, encourage, support and take advantage of innovation to solve city challenges.

Collaboration is another key component of this annual Urban Age Institute initiative, through conference sharing of best practice on the development of new approaches to urban sustainability and equity, but also as it relates to the need for all city stakeholders to cooperate in the transformation of urban environments into smart cites. Government is a critical participant in this process, and the role of city administrators in the fostering and maintenance of intelligent communities was an important exploration point at the Toronto event.

In her introductory remarks, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne outlined many of the larger issues we face in these "complex times": changing demographics, climate issues and an aging population are straining the limits of urban and regional resources, she explained. But government’s involvement in creating solutions is "controversial" and money tight, forcing government to limit its role to that of "facilitator." Specifically, this means providing support through the development of infrastructure. Years of underinvestment in transport systems in centres like Toronto and Hamilton, for example, are having a negative impact on productivity, Wynne argued, while the suburbs, smaller cities such as Waterloo, and cross border trade routes all require transport updates. Premier Wynne described several ways that Ontario is addressing financing for these needed upgrades: in addition to high occupancy toll lanes to provide funding for transit innovation, application of the Ontario’s gas tax to transit investments and the rollout of cycling strategies and safe, walkable communities, Wynne also detailed allocations of targeted funds in regional communities, including a $100 million fund for small municipalities to address infrastructure issues.

On the environmental front, she pointed to creation of the Ontario GreenBelt to curb urban sprawl and the provincial government’s moratorium on coal fired electricity generation, a policy that has fostered green innovation in the energy field. According to Wynne, the result has been the development of technologies in energy and water that are now being marketed on a global basis, creating a "virtuous circle" of job creation out of environmental stewardship.

As ‘facilitator’, government also plays a more direct role by supporting entrepreneurship. In a panel on Ontario’s "innovation landscape" Bill Mantel of the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation stated that the ministry’s network of Centres of Excellence, aimed at research and commercialization of good ideas, have always targeted the entrepreneur. Nurturing the entrepreneur is also the primary focus at the MaRS Discovery Centre, which has fostered startups aimed at system transformation in healthcare, energy and environment fields. As MaRS head Ilse Treurnich explained, projects "have to be sustainable because the social impact is in our DNA," and the incubator’s chief goal is to help promising businesses scale, and ultimately engage in global markets. Beyond funding and incubation, the panel also heard from OCAD president Sarah Diamond who stressed the need to develop and bring together three transformational capacities: design capability that takes into account both current and future human and environmental impacts; mobile technology; and data, which she described as "the oil and water of the 21st century." Diamond pointed to good programs across Ontario universities — a smart innovation platform for university researchers and businesses and the data driven design network that help designers perform analytics to visualize outcomes — as well as the creation of open data networks as keys that will enable individuals to make daily decisions on environmental matters and allow input into collective decision making.

Beyond this kind of structural support, government can also take on an active leadership position in the building of sustainable communities. David Miller, who is former mayor of Toronto and current president and CEO of the WWF Canada, also serves as chairperson of the Council of Canadian Academies’ Expert Panel, which has been tasked by the federal government to execute an independent, science-based research inquiry into the role that ICT can play in the greening of Canada. Scheduled for release this fall, the panel’s report will recommend the best green ICT to bring to the Canadian economy, taking into account the "triple bottom line" or the combination of environmental, economic and social equity values. In the accompanying video interview, Miller also discusses the sources of environmental degradation (40% of GHG from buildings, transportation and the production of electricity to power cities), but also the green performance of the City of Toronto which through government policies and the closing of coal fired generation plants has achieved a 15% reduction from its 1990 GHG emissions levels. Miller also provided specific examples of the triple bottom line approach, including a project for insulating the outside of buildings in economically disadvantaged areas of the city targeted for development by Transit City which employed local residents to meet environmental, transport and social goals.

Specific projects like these are critical to the successful evolution of sustainable cities; however, the gap between industries and cities that Charbel Aoun, SVP, Smart Cities — Strategy & Innovation at Schneider Electric outlined in his presentation can introduce significant roadblocks. In Aoun’s schema, the fact that "industry doesn't speak city language and vise versa," is a communications barrier that needs to be overcome if we are to launch the demonstration and pilot projects, develop the business cases and create the reference architectures required to scale smart city innovation.  Based on Schneider implementation of smart city systems in locations such as Dallas, Aoun pointed to learnings about the specific input from governments that is required: namely data sharing from various city departments as a first step, and the development of regulation needed to support new technologies.

"How do we make smart cities work?" Charbel asked. Imagine this: autonomous driving systems that can dramatically improve traffic safety, provide relief from traffic congestion, cleaner air, a cityscape not dominated by parked cars, greater productivity, lower fuel costs for drivers and greater fuel efficiency — that fail because of a lack of guidelines. As James Pisz, corporate manager, NA business strategy at Toyota, which has developed an AASRV system, explained, "the barriers to implementation are not technical," but rather consumers who have not yet built trust in this type of system, due in large part to a lack of government guidelines or legislation on issues such as collision liability. Imagine telling your car to go park itself, a technical possibility that Pisz described — only to find that the system has been unable to integrate with Big Data contained in city administrator databases, such as traffic photos showing free parking spots. Imagine implementing Bombardier’s new Primove wireless induction charging system to provide rapid, efficient charging for city vehicles without unsightly overhead wires — without strong government commitment to prioritizing electrification or significant long term cooperation with planning and road construction departments. Unthinkable...

Next up: the role of industry in the sustainable cities triad.

Video interview with David Miller is available here.

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