An expert’s survey of the Smart Cities Challenge

By Roy Wiseman

On April 24, 2018, the window closed for submitting applications for Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge. By that date, 132 proposals had been submitted from 199 communities across Canada, with several proposals submitted by groups of communities working collaboratively.

All thirteen provinces and territories were represented by at least one proposal. The Nunavut Association of Municipalities submitted a single proposal, on behalf of all communities in Nunavut. Another interesting submission was from a collection of four francophone communities from three provinces: Plessisville in Quebec; Saint-Quentin in New Brunswick; La Broquerie and Saint-Pierre-Jolys in Manitoba.

The proposals are competing for very significant prizes from Infrastructure Canada:

  • One $50 million prize for communities of any population;
  • Two $10 million prizes for communities with populations of up to 500,000;
  • One $5 million prize for communities with populations of up to 30,000.

Communities were required to select the prize for which they were competing. While even the smallest community could choose to compete for the $50 million prize, most (but not all) opted to compete for a prize consistent with their population (individually or collectively for group submissions).

Proposal Requirements

As someone who has been involved in several awards programs, I was very impressed with the structure of the Smart Cities Challenge program. Infrastructure Canada developed an Application Guide which encouraged submissions to be as specific as possible: They wanted overall objectives, anticipated results, and ways to measure these results. For instance, they required submissions to select one (or at most two) areas of focus from among six choices:

  • Economic Opportunity – ex. increasing employment opportunities; reducing processing times or red tape for businesses; improving labour force skills; etc.
  • Empowerment and Inclusion – ex. reducing homelessness; reducing the number of institutionalized children and youth; better integrating newcomers, refugees, youth, seniors or minorities; increasing opportunities to participate in the democratic process or community decisions; etc.
  • Environmental Quality – ex. reducing greenhouse gas emissions or environmental contaminant levels; preserving or renewing the natural habitat; etc.
  • Healthy Living and Recreation – ex. increasing access to recreational programming; improving availability of remote health services; improving health outcomes, etc.
  • Mobility – ex. increasing accessibility to public transportation; reducing first mile/last mile gaps; reducing congestion; etc.
  • Safety and Security – ex. reducing crime rates; addressing safety for women; improving emergency response times; etc.

Almost one-third of the submissions selected either Economic Opportunity or Empowerment and Inclusion as one of their focus areas – often both. About 15 per cent opted for one of the other four choices. Interestingly, both Environmental Quality and Mobility appeared more frequently in submissions from British Columbia and Quebec than from other provinces.

Each proposal was required to begin with a single-sentence Challenge Statement, defining the measurable outcome(s) the community aimed to achieve with its proposal. Proposals were then asked to further elaborate on their challenge statement by describing specific goals to be achieved, projects or activities to be undertaken, and a strategy for measuring progress toward those goals, including baseline data to establish the current state. They were also asked to explain how the selected outcome(s) reflect the concerns and needs of their residents, based on community consultation – and how smart technology would contribute to achieving these outcome(s).

Creative Proposals

It is fascinating to read some of the creative proposals submitted by communities from across Canada, which clearly broaden our understanding of what might make a smart community:

For instance, a group of communities in Annapolis County, Nova Scotia submitted the following, combining flood mitigation with renewable tidal energy:

Four municipalities are working collaboratively to have engineers create a pioneering piece of infrastructure that will offer citizens safety and security from the threat of storm surges, … through the creation of a flood mitigation system that will also encompass a renewable energy source. …The proposed location is the Digby Gut, a narrow water channel …where the Bay of Fundy, with the highest tides in the world, meets the Annapolis Basin. This project is not about mollifying Mother Nature but rather working with her to harness her power. …The Bay of Fundy has been identified as being one of the top locations in the world for tidal energy, with Digby Gut being a premier site.

Or consider this submission from the Nunavut Association of Municipalities:

Our communities will implement protective and preventative measures to reduce the risk of suicide in Nunavut, which is ten times the national average, and increase the amount and accessibility of peer support networks, educational resources and creative outlets that promote positive Mental Health to all Nunavummiut.

Or this one from the Local Government District of Pinawa in Northern Manitoba:

Pinawa will become the first community in the world to be powered by a Small Modular Reactor and demonstrate, to other remote communities, the capacity to have safe, reliable, clean, and affordable electricity enabling them to grow their own fresh food and improve educational and technological opportunities through improved connectivity.

A number of proposals focused on smart mobility, featuring a combination of smart traffic management, as well as electric and autonomous vehicles. One intriguing example from the Town of Banff, Alberta includes the following:

“Our proposal [is] to bring electric powered driverless transit pods to our community. We want to be a major Canadian test site for a technology that’s gaining traction in Europe and Asia. We can show how an autonomous electric public transit system can serve our residents getting to and from work and our visitors exploring the town. Through a trial …in a tourist community that welcomes 4 million visitors a year …we hope to generate world-wide interest in sustainable transit and get people out of their cars”.

Some other brief examples illustrate the diversity of proposals from communities, both large and small, from across Canada:

  • An integrated mobility network will get people of all ages and abiliities moving more freely around rugged, wet and windy St. John’s [NL];
  • Stratford [PEI] will double its retention rate for new immigrants by creating a community where all people are welcome and included;
  • Moncton [NB] will transform into a model eco-city with that support …the collective reduction of energy consumption and waste, while increasing renewal energy use;
  • Our community [Cree Nation of Eastmain, QC] will develop an affordable, net-zero energy housing program …using smart technologies …to address …the poor quality and costly construction of houses in Indigenous communities;
  • Our solution [Cote Saint-Luc, QC] will help seniors who live alone by installing home monitoring sensors, GPS tracking, fall sensors and environmental sensors …[using] AI techniques to identify problems and share information with …community health services;
  • The City of Cornwall [ON] is proposing the implementation of a Safe Home Monitoring System which will …continuously monitor …interconnected wireless Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Alarms located in every single family residential dwelling and apartment unit.
  • Guelph/Wellington [ON] will become Canada’s first technology-enabled Circular Food Economy;
  • Moose Factory [ON] will construct a Heli-drone port …to provide cost effective air transportation and cargo freighting using drone and helicopter technology;
  • Our community [Kelsey, MB] will utilize LED Smart Farm Technology to support local nutritious food growth and promote food security …to achieve a 40% reduction in …imported vegetables and a 20% reduction in community diabetes rates;
  • Our community [Regina, SK] will …reduce incidences of impaired driving by 40% and vehicle collisions by 40%;
  • Lethbridge [AB] will double its post-secondary graduation rates…;
  • We (New Westminster, BC] will be Canada’s first digitally democratic society, with the highest rate of participation in local decision-making;
  • Surrey and Vancouver [BC] will implement Canada’s first two collision-free multi-modal transportation corridors, leveraging autonomous vehicles and smart technologies…;
  • Yellowknife [NT] will transform the simple lamppost into a beacon for sustainability;

Next Steps

Eligible applications will be reviewed by experts from inside and outside government and will then be evaluated by an independent jury, selected by Infrastructure Canada and consisting of “accomplished individuals from across the country who are “publicly recognized in their field, have a strong track record of leadership, and have a demonstrated interest in public issues or public service”, while also reflecting “gender parity and the diversity of the Canadian population”. Interested individuals can apply on the Infrastructure Canada website.

The jury will select a series of finalists, with the exact number to be determined, by summer 2018. Each finalist will receive a $250,000 grant to develop fully-implementable final proposals, including a strong business case, clear milestones, and measurable outcomes. As they develop their final proposals, finalists will formalize partnerships with organizations that will help implement their projects – and will establish project governance structures.

Final proposals are due in winter 2019, giving finalists a full year to develop their final proposals. Depending on the nature and scope of the final proposal, implementation is expected to span between two and five years.

I wish the applicants a very pleasant and lucky summer, though I will note that Infrastructure Canada has given itself a very ambitious timeline, given the number of entries and the fact that a jury has not yet been selected.

Roy Wiseman retired from the Region of Peel in 2011 after a long career as IT Director and the Region’s first Chief Information Officer (CIO). He currently serves as Executive Director of MISA/ASIM Canada.

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