January 27, 2023

Putting People First is “Smart Cities” 

By Martin Canning

Executive Director of Government Innovation, Evergreen

After attending the Smart City Expo World Congress, Martin Canning reflects on Canada’s place in the global smart cities landscape

Last November, I had the opportunity to attend the Smart Cities Expo and World Congress in Barcelona. Evergreen has been attending since 2018, year after year, working to stay in front of global trends that may have implications for this country. 

This year’s theme was “Cities Inspired by People,” that is, people first and technology solutions second. This seems to be a new global trend that is slowly emerging, especially throughout Europe and Asia. In years past, the commercial agenda seemed to frame much of the conversation related to smart cities, however, increasingly, community-focused agendas are framing data and technology solutions around the world. We’re hearing more about topics like “open data governance” and “data literacy” today. 

Conference speaker Miguel Sangalang (Executive Director, City of Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting) got it right when he said, “It’s about changing the conversation from the technology itself to the people, and how to make the public space a safer and more inviting place to be.” 

Smart cities approaches can no longer be pure commercial solutions, based on the needs of large urban markets. Local governments are considering more than just economic development in evaluating the impacts of technology adoption when advancing their innovation agendas. Longer-term perspectives and implications are better understood today, and this growing knowledge is giving agency to new non-commercial actors. 

In Canada, the people-first approach is evident in municipal-level projects and has been for years. One city leading the way is Guelph. Together with neighbouring Wellington County, they created a first-of-its-kind program in Canada to solve the problem of food insecurity via the creation of a circular food economy. Their winning project in Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge – Our Food Future – sought to uncover what and where community needs were the most immediate, and then utilized the data to validate decision-making. Montreal, Bridgewater, and Nunavut’s winning projects are other excellent examples showcasing resident-driven approaches to community solutions, redefining how we think about smart cities.  

Unfortunately, in this country at the provincial and national level, we display very limited focus on smart cities work in both the public and private sectors. Our federal government deserves credit for launching the Smart Cities Challenge in 2017, however, the community innovation agenda must be broader than funding opportunities for innovative projects. There are real policy challenges emerging that will face governments long into the future, requiring a new level of prioritization. National governments around the world are defining urban innovation strategies and agendas through policies, programs, and concrete plans (i.e. long-term funding). Community-level innovation is valued, prioritized, and receives growing levels of investment. 

In Europe, common goals and common data are collected across all countries governed by the European Union. It’s the European Commission that sets the overarching goals (e.g. affordable, secure and sustainable energy) and these goals are also tied to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Countries are directed to track a series of metrics and work in the same direction, with integrated purpose across borders. We cannot say that Canadian provinces and territories work in this common manner. 

In this country it will take all sectors to collaborate for long-term funded, sustainable, and inclusive community solutions. We’re not there yet, but the potential to reach that next level is on the horizon.


Note: At Evergreen, rather than describing our work as “smart cities” work we tend to use the broader concept of “community solutions.” We’re working to bring more attention to  projects worth replicating through our Community Solutions Network. Just this past year, we met with hundreds of municipal and Indigenous representatives who work in the community innovation sectors. We learned about unique and important projects, advancing substantial impact in communities. We connect with people through a variety of ways – through hosting virtual innovation workshops and exchanges, through our advisory services and Communities of Practices led by partner Open North, and often just by getting on the phone for a one-to-one conversation. If we haven’t yet met, we’d love to get to know you. 

Contact us: communitysolutions(@)  

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