From left: City of Toronto's Susan Viegas, co-chair of its Smart City working group; City of Toronto strategic planning manager Grant Coffey; and Hatch's Carl Bodimeade at ITAC's Internet of Things forum on Nov. 29.
From left: City of Toronto's Susan Viegas, co-chair of its Smart City working group; City of Toronto strategic planning manager Grant Coffey; and Hatch's Carl Bodimeade at ITAC's Internet of Things forum on Nov. 29.

Published: November 30th, 2016

Note: An earlier version of this article, referenced in the link, incorrectly stated that digital transformation could save the city of Toronto $1.2 billion annually rather than over 10 years. ITbusiness.ca regrets the error.

TORONTO – Implementing a smart city strategy could eventually save the city $1.2 billion over 10 years and create at least 19,000 new jobs, two members of the city’s smart city working group said on Tuesday.

The former number was sourced from a Cisco Systems Inc. report, while the latter was extrapolated by city staff based on a survey conducted by Forrester Research.

Providing insight into the municipal development process, the smart city working group’s co-chair, Susan Viegas, and strategic planning manager Grant Coffey discussed their current efforts to build a smart city strategy at the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC)’s Internet of Things forum on Nov. 29.

“I think we recognize the tremendous opportunity that becoming a smart city can bring to the residents, visitors, and businesses of Toronto,” Coffey told ITBusiness.ca. “But we’re looking at it from several lenses: how we’re going to drive economic growth, how we’re going to meet our environmental goals, how we’re going to be socially inclusive.”

For now, he said, the city is focused on examining how many public services can be connected through digital infrastructure, for both residents and businesses, in addition to identifying challenges such as procuring equipment and – the question that led to the city creating a working group in the first place – establishing what, exactly, the phrase “smart city” even means.

“While we were out… consulting with the business community, we were talking to a lot of vendors and saying, ‘what does smart mean to you?'” Viegas, a senior advisor with the city’s economic development division, said. “And overwhelmingly, many of our stakeholders were right in the midst of pondering, ‘what does smart mean for us?'”

“Our consultations found that people were embracing the idea, but there was no common collective vision around or understanding of what ‘smart’ meant,” she continued.

That experience led Viegas’ division to collaborate with the Toronto Region Board of Trade on creating the working group which, Viegas said, is dedicated to both defining “smart” as a concept, and identifying how the city could take advantage of public/private partnerships to embody the result.

Some of the biggest names in Canadian business eventually joined the working group, including Bell Canada, Rogers Communications Inc., and Telus Corp., tech giants such as IBM Corp., and Toronto startup incubator MaRS. For its first official gathering, the working group organized a Smart Cities Summit in May.

“I think the city needs help from the private sector,” Viegas told ITBusiness.ca. “I think part of the ‘smart cities’ concept is very much the recognition that none of us can go it alone.”

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In addition to discussing the definition of “smart city” and the tools available to the parties involved, Coffey said the working group discussed challenges such as creating a benchmark that could be used to measure its smart infrastructure against such international luminaries as New York City, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Singapore, London, and Barcelona; and – most imperatively – procurement laws, which many members of the working group believe are constraining innovation, he said.

“We especially want to move forward in advancing procurement,” Coffey said. “To be innovative, we definitely recognize that we have to improve our partnership opportunities, and that includes modernizing some of our procurement policies.”

Another pending challenge, he said, will be creating a sustainable funding model.

“We understand that we’re really going to have to demonstrate the value associated with these investments if we want to drive towards long-term fiscal sustainability,” he said.

What a ‘smart’ strategy could ultimately look like

The Board of Trade released a report based on May’s conference in September, while the city plans to release a report of its own in January.

Among other recommendations, the Board of Trade’s report identified five “key areas of interest” for the working group moving forward:

  • Resilience: Increasing Toronto’s ability to withstand a wide range of shocks and stresses by investing its people, infrastructure, civic organizations, and education programs.
  • Data: Similar to the benchmark Coffey mentioned, the Board and other participants agreed that establishing a comprehensive metric for measuring Toronto’s intelligence and resilience will help the city develop a comprehensive long-term vision and track its progress.
  • Communication: Highlighting three of the city’s existing world-class smart capabilities – a culture and entertainment sector that frequently allows participants to work with colleagues in California; the Toronto Public Library system, which is the largest public library system in North America; and Waterfront Toronto, one of the world’s largest waterfront redevelopment projects.
  • Procurement Policy: Every year Toronto awards an average of $1.8 billion in goods and services, professional services, and construction services to outside suppliers, effectively making the city its own largest employer, with 40,000 workers on its payroll. Yet only five per cent of its government’s budgets are dedicated to innovation. The Board and other participants have recommended that the city revise its procurement process to foster innovation and encourage firms across the city to develop new solutions, instead of simply delivering a product or service.
  • Talent: One of Toronto’s key strengths is developing talent, the Board and other participants agreed. Retaining it? Not so much.

Coffey emphasized that the city’s January report won’t be a smart cities strategy per se, but a summary of the working group’s various efforts to date, including the May summit; the “smart city” definition research mentioned by Viegas; and the benchmarking efforts mentioned by Coffey. However, “it will set some direction as to where we’re going to move forward on the smarter cities initiative,” he said.

Eventually the city hopes to create a strategy that will both improve its residents’ quality of life and help the city market itself globally, Coffey said, calling the working group’s current efforts a way “to move the conversation forward.”

Representatives from the city of Toronto will be speaking at Technicity, an IT World Canada-sponsored event that will be taking place on Dec. 7. Though Coffey and Viegas will not be attending, other representatives will be at the conference to discuss everything from Toronto’s smart city initiative, to its digital service efforts, to its work with driverless vehicles and the Internet of Things (IoT).

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