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Why Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge is missing the mark

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The Canadian federal government launched the Smart Cities Challenge in 2017 to award up to $50 million to municipal governments that are best able to leverage technology to improve life in their cities.

The challenge is part of the government’s Impact Canada Initiative, which aims to address complex economic, environmental and social problems across the country.

During the challenge, hundreds of municipalities from across Canada submit their ideas for improving their communities. The winners receive grants to further develop their innovative ideas into final proposals. Montréal in Common is the result of the city winning the grand prize $50 million in 2019.

After four years, the government is planning on hosting the second round of the challenge. This year’s federal budget quietly allocated funds for the next one to be announced later this year, the details of which are currently sparse.

If we have learned anything in the interim, it’s that “smart cities” are rarely as intelligent and beneficial as the idea seems, and often prioritize private companies’ profit over social good.

‘Smart cities’ terminology

The Smart Cities Challenge is missing the mark on a few key fronts. First is the term itself — the very origins of the term “smart city” are a private sector marketing gimmick. When IBM coined the phrase “smarter cities” in 2009, it referred less to intelligence and more to the specific set of technologies IBM wanted to sell.

It is clear that this kind of tech firm marketing continues to influence how city administrators approach urban problems. Framing urban problems in a way that suggests they can be resolved solely through technical solutions often overlooks the underlying causes of these issues.

For example, if a city government treats homelessness as an issue of missing data or a WiFi connectivity gap, rather than a result of soaring housing costs, degrading tenants’ rights and labour precarity, then homelessness will inevitably persist. While businesses may profit by offering technology “solutions,” the core issues remain unaddressed.

Instead, urban problems need to be treated as deeply rooted political issues requiring deliberation, political struggle and democratic empowerment.

Focusing on community needs

Although public spending on the next challenge will shape Canadian cities for generations, there is little transparency about the process, and less accountability than should be expected. If you search for information about the new challenge you will come up empty-handed — let alone if you try to get involved.

Contrast this with Barcelona’s smart city approach, which, while not perfect, has made e-democracy central to its smart city plan.

E-democracy uses technology to address some of the foundational limits of democratic participation, like problems of scale, limited time availability, declining community engagement and a lack of opportunities for policy deliberation.

Canada should take inspiration from cities like Barcelona that are attempting to use a more democratic approach to smart city planning.
(Shutterstock)

The high-profile debacle of Sidewalk Toronto serves as a cautionary tale for what can happen when smart city projects are distracted by the allure of smartness, instead of focusing on community needs.

Sidewalk Labs is an New York-based urban planning firm that set out to develop a neighbourhood in Toronto. The project was plagued by a variety of problems, including an exploitative data collection and ownership model. In 2020, the project was called off.

As Canada gears up for another round of its Smart Cities Challenge, policymakers need to look past the hype and glitz of smart technology, prioritize Canadian communities’ needs and strengthen democratic participation in urban planning.

The next Smart Cities Challenge

With these challenges in mind, what options does the Canadian federal government have in formulating its next Smart Cities Challenge?

First, the government should consider jettisoning the smart cities label altogether. Some have argued there is no rescuing the term from its profit-seeking origins. Using a different, more benign equivalent could signal that people’s needs are what’s important, not companies’ bottom lines.

When considering different titles, “digital cities” is not entirely guilt-free, but has had a less contentious historical lineage that makes it an apt alternative.

Emerging in policy discussions during the 1990s, the digital cities movement was diverse in its planning goals. Its overarching aim was to explore how technologies could enhance cross-cultural communication, extend economic market transactions and provide deeper insights into how cities work.

At the heart of the Smart Cities Challenge is a vision of what our cities should look like, and that vision should emerge from those of us living in them.
(Shutterstock)

Other nomenclature could de-centre technology altogether to acknowledge the goal isn’t digital smartness at all: “equitable cities,” “just cities,” or “healthy cities,” for example.

An examination of the proposals from the first Smart Cities Challenge reveals that municipalities were driven by community needs, not technology. Guelph and Wellington’s proposal about addressing food insecurity only mentioned technology a few times. Nunavut’s proposal involved suicide prevention, a long-standing issue in its communities.

If the Smart Cities Challenge focused less on the “smartness” of technology, and more on substantive issues, cities would have had more freedom to articulate their challenges outside the confines of digital solutions.

Community input is key

Second, when designing the new challenge, tech companies should be all but absent from the table. Instead of hearing from the tech sector, the government should hear from community associations, non-profit organizations, civil groups, planners and urban policymakers.

Policymakers need to recognize that urban planning policies should not be limited by what we think is possible with digital technologies. The democratic debates that lead us to recognize and address urban problems must be the foundation, context and ultimate goal of any related digital cities program.

In other words, the technology needs to come second, and technology companies must contribute after the problems are already framed. The smart city must be just “smart enough” and no more, in data scientist Ben Green’s words. A reconfigured Smart Cities Challenge could potentially support these processes.

The Canadian government has some difficult decisions to make, but there are clear paths forward to avoid the pitfalls that characterized the first 14 years of “smart cities.”


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