Understanding Smarter Cities: the iPhones of Municipal Governments

by Anna-Kay Russell


What is a smart city?

That was the first question that came to mind when I saw a promotion for an academic panel called “Understanding Smarter Cities: What Happens Next?”, recently hosted by the Innis College Urban Studies program. After trying to answer the question myself – thinking of smart cities like smart phones or “keener” cities – I decided it best to discover the definition by going to the panel itself.

And what a panel it was.

I wouldn’t call myself an avid panel-attendee; nevertheless, of all the panels I have ever attended, this one stood out as quite unique. For one, all of the panelists had a diverse background of knowledge and, in essence, were there to represent different elements of what a smart city is or could be: Judy Farvolden of the Transportation Research Institute; V. Kumar Murty of the Department of Mathematics; Patricia O’Campo of the Social & Behavioural Health Sciences Division of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health; Enid Slack of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance; David Wolfe of the Innovation Policy Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs; and Robert Wright of the Centre for Landscape Research in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design and the Faculty of Forestry.

The panel was moderated by Janice Stein, Professor and founding Director of the Munk School. She challenged each panelist to reflect on their fellow panelists’ remarks, which helped to paint an interesting picture of what smart cities are, how different one can be to another, and what we need to know about them.

First up was Judy Farvolden, who provided a great overview of common components of a smart city: innovation, partnerships (particularly with universities) and community visions. According to The World Bank, a smart city is a city that strengthens the relationship between citizens and governments through available and intelligent technology (e.g. high-efficient buildings or open data). Farvolden believes smarter cities are opportunities to take massive technological forces and use them for good (e.g. Uber, Sidewalk Toronto); a smart city would not pit the city against us, the people, as it would become the city and us. Kumar Murty followed with a brilliant global take on the label of “smart city”, using his personal and professional experiences to give us insight into the smart village. In many places in India, China, North and South America, one may not find a city as much as villages. Murty explained that smart villages differ with smart cities, not only in scale, but also in the basic approach taken in building them. He believes smart villages will bring the so-called “smartness” from infrastructure to the individual as “villages contain so much untapped human potential”.

Patricia O’Campo brought to the table the importance of the economic, social and environmental aspects of smarter cities. She was the first to admit opposition to some of Farvolden’s views, stating the importance of social factors (beyond technology and urbanism) when developing a smart city, as “inequality hurts everyone”. In an article by The Atlantic’s CityLab, “How Innovation Leads to Economic Segregation”, findings from a new study show that the clustering of knowledge and talent that powers innovation and economic growth also creates the divides that tear communities apart (e.g. Silicon Valley, where innovation and economic gain has done nothing to relieve San Francisco of its inequalities – possibly worsening them).

Enid Slack went on to speak about the fiscal constraints faced by smart cities, questioning how to pay for them and acknowledging that “larger cities and municipalities should have greater fiscal autonomy”. David Wolfe discussed the terminology issue of smart cities, stating that the word “smart” is broad and therefore susceptible to misuse and confusion. In closing, Robert Wright discussed the need for smart cities to effectively respond to climate change, as it is both a complex and wicked problem. He touched on the importance of smart city infrastructure to be sustainable and resilient, where resilience is “safe to fail” (i.e. vulnerable to destruction but easier to rebuild from extreme weather and other disasters).
Question period had the panelists explore issues related to public policy, including a question of how to improve the lag between social issues and policy response in municipalities. Murty responded by saying that he believes governments are followers, and the citizen, the leader.

Near the end of the talk, Stein lamented how risk averse the government is. She questioned the audience on whether any young people would want to work for such a government, and stated that it’s important to make policies that are “innovative and ready to rise to the challenges of the world”. Quick to respond, an audience member, identifying himself as an Assistant Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Infrastructure of the Government of Ontario, spoke to Stein’s comments (frustratingly, it seemed), asserting that the government is indeed innovative and open; working towards improving its methods, and inviting young people to help them do so in the process. Loud applause erupted from the audience, and as a young adult with experience working in government (and all too aware of these comments of despair), it was wonderful to see a government representative so ready to defend with confidence and hope in his organization.

And with that, smart cities could be the future: one of innovation, collaboration and progress. As Ms. Stein had hoped, the panel was an evening of open and intense dialogue, leaving me with not only a better understanding of smarter cities, but wanting to know more.

Anna-Kay Russell is a second-year MPP candidate at the School of Public Policy & Governance. Prior to entering her masters, she completed her iBA in Environmental Studies and Psychology at Glendon College, York University. Her main policy interests include environmental policy, municipal affairs, diversity and inclusion and public opinion. Outside of academia, she immensely enjoys singing, travelling, learning new languages and trying new recipes.