What does it mean to future-proof a city?
While no one can predict the future, experts in smart technology and urban planning say there are ways to help cities adapt and thrive
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The climate crisis.
Cities have it tough these days. We asked four technology and urban planning experts to share their views on how cities can best respond to these challenges, and in process explore what it means to future-proof our cities.
Principal of client
School of urban and
information and communication
technology (ICT) consulting
What do you think future-proofing a city should look like?
Jeff Albee: Digital is the expectation nowadays. Our cities have gone through a digital transformation over the past twenty-plus years and they need to shape their future through that digital lens, strategizing about their role in a “post-digital” era, one where everything is digital in some way.
Pamela Robinson: A planning solution needs to combine technology with civic engagement and human ingenuity, so we’re not just going to build pipes or pour concrete.
When planners are involved in future-proofing, we work with communities to solicit their wisdom and learn from their lived experience and local knowledge. Then we try to understand what their needs are, so the recommendations we make and the actions we take are ecologically sound but also align with people’s needs and wants and desires. Better future-proofing recognizes that the people who live there right now have important things to say. We’re future-proofing with people, not for them.
Nancy MacDonald: When thinking about a city growing and evolving over time, we need to focus on a basic planning framework – what makes great neighbourhoods? Future-proofing is using the framework based on strong principles of place-making, as well as creating a sense of community and improving access to mobility and allowing technology to support these components of the communities.
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Richard Baker: We can never really predict what the future’s going to hold, but we can make [cities] ready for the smart, IoT [Internet of Things], big data, artificial-intelligence possibilities that are coming down the road.
Preparing is going to mean a focus on infrastructure. Data is currently siloed in different departments and has to be retrieved manually before it can be shared. The platform needs to be open and vendor-agnostic. An example of why you’d need a single unified platform is disaster relief. Cities will be able to modify their own platform on the fly knowing where available services are and how they can get people evacuated or get them medical attention in the quickest manner.
Is there a right
(or wrong) way
to do it?
Richard Baker: We need to use technology and systems that are consumer-facing to help create efficiencies for citizens. What’s currently happening is that large manufacturers are saying ‘let’s put in this technology’ without a plan or a problem to solve, then getting cities to use their platform because the manufacturer either funded or created a loan for the project. Cities become tied to one manufacturer in a sense and over-pay for a proprietary system that’s not flexible.
Nancy MacDonald: The first phase of smart cities was focused on the technology, and was dominated by the large tech companies. The focus now has shifted to being about the quality of life of residents. Technology companies are key partners in smart cities, and provide some of the tools to get to that end. Creating a truly smart city is not only about implementing technology, it’s about engaging the broad community on identifying what we want to achieve, how it will impact citizens, and then planning and managing how to interact with the technology.
What do you think is the most important part of future-proofing? Why?
Jeff Albee: Cities need to pay closer attention to the choices people make and the insights that they can provide. When we share information and preferences across the range of services a municipality provides, citizens and cities benefit from more efficient, targeted services that can also lower costs to municipalities. For example, a municipality might encourage different modes of transportation for trip-planning based on these preferences, which could include options for mixed modes — biking, walking, skateboarding, et cetera — depending on the individual’s personal preferences.
Pamela Robinson: Local residents are wise and care about where they live. If people in positions of power invest in good public engagement processes, we can build momentum to do the work that needs to happen.
What’s interesting is the solutions that work for Vancouver are going to look different than the ones that are in Moose Jaw, or Iqaluit, or Quebec City. If we’re serious about this work, we will have a series of thoughtful, place-based solutions.
Nancy MacDonald: The use of technology is going to be vital in how we create healthy, happy and economically sustainable cities. As part of this process, it’s important to look at projects at multiple scales to test and develop solutions.
In Toronto, the King Street pilot project improved transit reliability, speed and capacity. It’s a good example of a small project that used data and technology to improve connectivity and service for transit users.
Sidewalk Labs is working on a project for Waterfront Toronto in Quayside that’s another good example, at a much different scale, of a neighbourhood piloting a series of smart infrastructure systems in a small defined area, which could then be scaled up and applied to broader Toronto.
Are there examples of cities that are doing future-proofing particularly well?
Pamela Robinson: A lot of cities are doing a good job. Toronto, with the naturalization of the mouth of the Don [River], that’s a significant investment by all three levels of government that will ultimately lead to a much more sustainable future on the waterfront because we’re putting the river back where it should be and investing in high-quality design.
Lots of small communities have been having important conversations along the way, in part because politicians are more directly connected to their residents. Bridgewater, Nova Scotia,just won $5-million in the federal government’s Smart Cities Challenge to work on place-based affordable energy solutions.
Two different places, two different actions on a different scale with different outcomes. And both are important.
What are some challenges cities face to their future-proofing efforts?
Jeff Albee: Evolution in procurement. Cities need to shift from large capital expenditures to operational expenditures to be able to deliver the same level of service for a lower initial investment.
For example, Stantec did a roadway test in April just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, in collaboration with the University of Tennessee Space Institute.
The test had traffic management centres connected to a roadside computer called an “Edge” device with several sensors that recognized wrong-way driving. The combined system made the process of responding to these events on the roadway extremely efficient. We were responding in seconds to events traditional processes took many minutes to respond to. All with a device that costs a couple of thousand dollars annually—proving we can make our infrastructure safer, more efficient and more effective with a minimal investment.
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Richard Baker: With current technology rates, 60 per cent of all tasks that make up people’s jobs can be automated. Cities need to understand what the overall digital transformation is going to be for their industries and start to plan for technology in response. If we start to automate, that will obviously affect people. How do you keep citizens engaged and happy?
Nancy MacDonald: The elephant in the room is how to manage the data and privacy issues. I believe that this will eventually get worked out. But we’re not quite there yet.
It’s also difficult to focus on long -term objectives and opportunities in infrastructure with election cycles that run on a four-year time frame. It’s very challenging to make the kind of decisions that are necessary in order to invest in long-term infrastructure.
Pamela Robinson: Future-proofing cities can be inconvenient. Anyone who’s living through a transportation infrastructure investment project right now knows their path to work is made more complicated every day. If we actually want communities that our children and their children will be able to thrive in, we need to live through these changes now.
What would future-proofing mean for regular citizens?
Jeff Albee: One of the biggest changes out there is mitigating digital threats. There are a lot of connected devices and data out there in the world, and that increases the number of targets. Businesses and cities need to respond to these threats with a real collaborative approach, balancing security and privacy with the information we get from these digital systems. Location is a great example — I use a traffic app to get home every day, and in exchange, I give up my location information. Increasingly we’re going to be sacrificing some sort of privacy or security for the benefit, and we need to make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.
Pamela Robinson: We have to recognize that this is going to be expensive. We can’t continue to pretend like significant civic investments aren’t necessary now, so we need to have hard conversations about how we’re going to fund those investments. We also need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves who we’re voting for. Will we vote for the leaders who are forthright and transparent, who will make the investments and do the hard work it takes?
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio.
The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.