Are you ready for the Smart Cities challenge?

As part of its fall economic update, the federal government said it’s looking to launch a new Smart Cities Challenge initiative next year. It’s a move lauded by the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), and described as “timely” by the organization’s senior director of policy, David Messer, but it also means municipalities need to start rethinking their procurement policies.

“The government of Canada is learning from other initiatives around the world,” he said. ITAC sees Smart Cities as being heavily tied to the Internet of Things (IoT), both of which Messer acknowledged as buzzwords, but also very much in a “emerging” state.

“Smart cities is something that is never going to be done,” he said. “It’s going to be a journey.”

For one, smart cities must be nurtured by all three levels of government, he said. Right now, municipalities are left to their own devices through informal networks and conferences and for the most part working independently thanks to visionary mayors.

“There should be at the provincial level a strategy to help communities to learn from each other and work together to roll out smart infrastructure in a collaborative way,” he said.

At the municipal level, Messer said it’s important that government be open to new and different types of procurement, as the current model supports replacement of existing infrastructure but seldom supports the call for something innovative – smarter fire hydrants, for example.

“You need that challenge to drive innovation,” he said.

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The smart cities program will be based on a successful model in the U.S., which the Obama administration committed more than $80 million in federal funding to in 2016. Messer noted the U.S. program recently doubled the number of participating cities, and that emulating our neighbors to the south makes sense from a policy perspective, although there are examples from around the world to draw from as well, including European countries and South Korea.

In Canada, Messer cited the town of Stratford, Ontario, as a perfect case study: largely known for its theatre, the community has in recent years deployed a municipally-owned fibre broadband network and free city-wide wi-fi, and become home to both a digital media centre at its University of Waterloo satellite campus, and the Stratford Accelerator Centre, a startup incubator that began operations in 2014.

Last year, the City of Toronto allied with Chicago-based Internet of Things management firm Cityzenith in order to better manage the mounds of raw data cities collect daily to come up with data-driven solutions to make cities more responsive to the needs of citizens and businesses.

At the provincial level smart meters for electricity consumption in Ontario are a good example of an effective Smart Cities initiative, Messer said, in that they encourage more efficient use of a public asset. New Brunswick, has made leveraging IoT a strategic priority, provides another. (ITAC published a Seizing the Internet of Things Opportunity report, which recommends the creation of a national IoT strategy, in June.)

Messer said Smart Cities are also a great way to loop together climate change, carbon reduction and innovation goals; smart transportation addresses all three, for example.

In its economic update, the federal government notes that under the Smart Cities plan, “Participants will create ambitious plans to improve the quality of life for urban residents, through better city planning and implementation of clean, digitally connected technology including greener buildings, smart roads and energy systems, and advanced digital connectivity for homes and businesses.”

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