In 2016, a multitude of small cities – including Kitchener, Ont., Surrey, B.C., St. Albert, Alta., and the town of Berwick, N.S. – all had one thing in common: They all launched a strategy for digitization.
In practical terms, digitization has the potential to change the way residents of a town or city have their garbage collected and their roads plowed, the way they take public transport and park their cars, the ease with which they work from home and the way they understand their consumption of utilities.
It's no surprise then that the PwC Emerging Trends in Canadian Real Estate report has named "Connected Cities" as one of the 10 "top markets for investment and development" for the year ahead and experts are claiming it's only a matter of time before there's a tangible impact on real estate.
An unlikely leader in the field is the bedroom community of St. Albert, a city of 64,645 northwest of Edmonton that has been pioneering a digitization strategy since 2013, culminating in the launch of its Smart City Masterplan in October, 2016.
St. Albert is the founder of the Smart Cities Alliance of Alberta and has been partnering with global IT leaders Cisco and IBM to develop ideas, best practices and research in the field of intelligent communities.
Its freshly launched master plan includes a lengthy list of short-term objectives: fast Internet everywhere; public-transport systems which optimize travel times and safety; intelligent and intuitive road signals which prioritize emergency vehicles; responsive and efficient public amenities such as street lighting that automatically dims when a street is empty; and real-time data on services such as garbage collection and snow plowing as well as city parking availability.
These are ambitious plans for a city that – according to MoneySense Canada – is already the fourth best place to live in Canada. (Edmonton came in 48th; Calgary 66th.)
"I foresee a future in St. Albert where you move your car before the snow plow comes, where you know your daily household water consumption and you know parking spots downtown are running low so you take another mode of transport," says Travis Peter, strategy manager within the city's department of innovation and technology.
Mr. Peter is also preparing the city to embrace driverless-car technology. "I want St. Albert to be ready when driverless cars come to our roads and automated vehicles become the norm," he says, "and that's not too far in the distant future."
Mr. Peter says smart cities are "proven to generate savings and return on investment over time" and that St. Albert "will pass those savings on to residents while also reinvesting in our city. We recognize that, as a small city, we need to be economically competitive."
But the city's objectives are about more than just economics.
"Yes, attracting and retaining new residents is an objective. Attracting younger residents hasn't been stated as an official objective but I'd say it's an unofficial one," Mr. Peter admits.
According to the 2016 census, 38.8 per cent of St. Albert residents are more than 50 years old.
"It's something we hope to do primarily through attracting new businesses to Saint Albert and creating an environment which is appealing to startups, entrepreneurs and innovators. Connectivity and costs are the main reasons businesses will choose to set up home in one location over another," he adds.
Ryan Boser from Sarasota Realty says St. Albert's real estate scene has seen some recent adjustments which could support the city's plan.
"St. Albert has traditionally been a city where people would grow up and then leave for work opportunities and more affordable housing options. It's primarily single family homes and there's not a ton of affordable options for first-time buyers. But in the last five years that's definitely started to change," he says. "We're seeing a lot of new townhouses, half duplexes, apartments and condos coming into development. There's also been some rental inventory which was previously pretty scarce and it has been popular."
The 2016 census supports Mr. Boser's observation. The number of occupied apartments in St. Albert rose 17 per cent between 2014 and 2016, while the percentage of rented dwelling units also rose a little more than 1 per cent.
Continuing the trend into 2017 are developments such as Grandin Parc Village, which completed its first phase last month. City-centre condos start from just $199,900, less than half the average selling price in St. Albert in 2016 of $423,274.
"We see Grandin Parc Village playing a critical role as a catalyst for broader downtown investment and growth," says director of development Simon Taylor. "We've toured over 700 people through our show homes in the last two weeks. Interest is high and affordability and scarcity of downtown condos has certainly been a driver."
Mr. Taylor says that "younger, first-time purchasers" are a key demographic and their "long-term vision" is "to bring more people and businesses into the downtown core."
Mr. Boser says developments such as Grandin Parc Village will be a catalyst for change. "With more housing options to support business growth and a more diverse resident demographic, and the city supporting that with digitization, I think we'll see more changes down the line," he predicts.
Rick Huijbregts, Cisco's vice-president of digital transformation, agrees that "the smart-city real estate impact won't happen overnight."
"Smart-city technology has been around for about eight years now, but in Canada, we've been a little slower to adopt it. But we are reaching a turning point and now we have meaningful digital strategy discussions happening in council chambers across the country. It's exciting to see," he says.
"There's two ways this will impact on real estate," he continues. "There's the impact on the buildings themselves: smart homes, controlling our spaces better, buildings that are more efficient and responsive. Then there's the impact that happens when we create an environment that attracts people and businesses to stay and put down roots."
Dr. Huijbregts believes the lifestyle effect is also an important part of the equation.
"If I can work more flexibly, whether that's from home or from a co-working office or a coffee shop or a public space, I'm happier. If I can take the quickest, cheapest and greenest mode of transport to get to where I need to be, I'm happier. If services where I live are more efficient in general, I'm happier. When people want to live in a place and the real estate options available allow them to do that, in time, you create growth and demand."