At Technicity West 2022, three IT leaders came together to discuss intelligent cities in the post-pandemic world.
Natalia Madden, Head of IT for the County of Grande Prairie, Jazz Pabla, chief information officer (CIO) for the City of Kelowna, and Bachar Khawajah, CIO at the City of Burnaby started out the panel, which was moderated by IT World Canada‘s chief executive officer, Fawn Annan, by defining what exactly an intelligent city is.
“Intelligent cities are connected cities. They are cities that use data driven decision making in order to improve the lives of citizens through technology and and use innovation as a way to plan the cities and make them more livable and more sustainable,” Khawajah said.
Pabla provided a Canadian-specific problem – potholes due to heavy snowfall – and described how a smart city would approach this issue using technology.
“If you’re in a city that doesn’t use technology to understand your environment, citizens are required to send in a request when they see potholes in the community…I think cities trying to be more intelligent can understand where the pothole is without the citizen putting in a request, and actually patch up that pothole. And I think that type of technology and that type of predictive analytics on where things are failing and then providing that service to the citizens without them thinking about it – that’s where intelligent cities are going to go towards,” he said.
Khawajah provided an example of smart technology in the City of Burnaby. He said the city has a lot of garbage bins, so rather than manually checking which bin is full or empty, it installed sensors into each bin.
“We see which bins are empty and which bins are full and we use route optimization to get to those bins faster, clear them up and and move on. That saved us a lot of time and a lot of effort to make sure that these garbage bins are always in a good condition for our citizens to use.”
The panellists also highlighted smart city frameworks that they admire and see as successful.
Madden noted she thinks the city of Mississauga, Ontario has good information in their framework, but added it’s hard to box every aspect of a smart city into one place.
“In this case, it’s not one size fits all. I have yet to see a vendor or a consultant come over and say, ‘this is a really good model and I think you should adopt it.’ We’re so different, all the municipalities within Canada. It will be really hard to find one framework that you will adopt and say this is gonna work for all of us,” she observed.
But when it comes to intelligent cities, it’s not just about deploying and using technology, but also ensuring residents have access to it.
The digital divide in communities hinders some from being able to afford technology, making it hard for all citizens to keep up with tech advancements in a city.
“The digital divide is real. You see it a lot in communities across Canada and the access to the internet, the access to devices just isn’t there. And we can’t forget about that when we’re rolling out these solutions,” Pabla said.
The CRTC recommends that every household have access to broadband with download speeds of at least 50 Mbps, and the federal government has set a goal to have Canada-wide broadband by 2030. And according to the CRTC, in September of 2020, 86 per cent of households overall had that level of service. However, in rural areas only 40 per cent did. It gets even worse in First Nation communities, where an estimated 30 per cent of households have internet connections with the recommended speed.
“Our city is always looking for opportunities to help and educate our residents, and we do that a lot in our libraries…We have two large educational institutes, British Columbia Institute of Technology and Simon Fraser University, and work with them to find ways to educate our citizens, and help our citizens with understanding technology, how to use technology, as well as make technology accessible,” Khawajah said, discussing how Burnaby is closing its digital divide.
The pandemic has also played a role in helping cities further their tech innovation.
“I think what it did was it opened the non-tech communities’ eyes to the possibility that tech can solve a lot of problems. I think smart city solutions are just a byproduct of that.” Pabla said.
Madden echoed a similar sentiment, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic allowed for digital transformation in many cities. She said businesses that implemented online services, for example, were much more likely to sell products during closures.
“We see groceries being delivered to your house. We see a lot that has to do with technology,” she said. “Nowadays we talk about people that say I’m not ‘techie’ or ‘I don’t use technology.’ But the truth is that we’re all techies nowadays. The [pandemic] has changed [our lives] and it has positioned technology at a level where we all have to be a ‘techie’.”
The pandemic was a wake-up call for many municipalities around the world that reinforced the idea that digital services are vital for everybody.
“I’ve never been more hopeful for municipalities than I am right now, because I’m starting to see a lot of solutions come forward that can actually make the experience for citizens better,” Pabla said.