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The Summit session Smart Cities for Smart People

December 19, 2018

Lessons from the Future Cities Canada Summit: How residents can help co-create smart cities

Written by Zoya Sodhi: Project Manager, Future Cities Canada

Cities are increasingly striving to become smart and innovative with their use of data and technology, and how they work with residents to inform, co-create, and implement new solutions. In an effort to better understand and elevate the role of residents, the Future Cities Canada Summit brought together diverse partners from across sectors to discuss how residents can shape smarter cities.

Evergreen, together with Open North, Digital Justice Lab, the City of Guelph, First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC) and Soofa, a New-York based social enterprise, reflected on the inclusion of people-centric approaches related to smart cities. 

Here’s what we heard:

Through the process of ‘Participatory Budgeting,’ residents have a direct say in supporting projects within their own neighbourhoods

Residents are at the core of this decision-making process and work directly with the municipal government to co-develop their neighbourhoods, and understand wants and needs. Residents have the power to decide where the money needs to be spent. Vancouver, Victoria, Winnipeg, Toronto and Guelph are some of the cities actively leading community-based projects and informing priorities to improve their urban living. While the process of participatory budgeting is a win-win for both the residents and municipalities, there are some major obstacles to more widespread adoption across cities, namely lack of targeted investments and a lack of pre-determined funding from municipal budgets.

People waiting for a train

Through the implementation of open data standards, residents can monitor government procurement practices

More than 60 governments globally have committed to the Open Government Partnership (OGP), making their government data available to enable public scrutiny and monitoring. This commitment will enhance government accountability and transparency on open tenders and procurement contracts.  

In the words of Gavin Hayman, Executive Director of the Open Contracting Partnership: We should be able to see what government buys to check if our money is being put to good use.” 

Residents can be engaged to re-purpose vacant lots for new public uses with the aid of digital technologies

Whether it’s creating a mobile swing set, repurposing a shipping container, building a community garden or activating a fun playground, there are interactive ways to engage communities and residents in the overall process. Considered as an incremental approach, re-appropriation of vacant lots can stimulate ownership of a new space, use low-cost experiments and test out concepts to create an immediate impact, reuniting people with local resources.

Having said that, the redevelopment process faces significant obstacles in its implementation. Lack of readily available data to spot the location of these vacant spaces, socio-economic digital divide that affects collection of information, absence of an inclusive process to engage larger communities and monetizing urban land for revenue generation purposes, are few of them.

Residents can provide their own views of important landmarks and cultural sites through online, crowdsourcing platforms

Cultural mapping can source innovative ideas from residents through a wide variety of digital tools. But some might argue that this kind of mapping interface does not always include a fair representation of different population strata, particularly those in marginalized communities. The way this information is collected, processed and utilized requires a certain degree of transparency and accountability to enable trust and create a sense of ownership among residents.

Residents can drive collaborative policy making by providing feedback on the development of city policies through various tools

How effective is collaborative policy making? Is it a transitional shift from the use of traditional approaches like public meetings, surveys and information flyers to online digital platforms? Is it successful in enhancing dialogue and collaboration across communities and government structures? While these were just some pressing questions that were raised at the Summit, it was collectively recognized that the ‘city’ needs to act as a moderator. The city must give a stronger push for opportunities to participate in the governance process and engage in a continued dialogue on addressing these issues.

These conversations are a critical starting point and will help inform some of the community engagement efforts through Future Cities Canada’s new initiatives supported through funding from the Smart Cities Community Support Program. 

This piece was written in collaboration with Jean-Noé Landry, Executive Director of OpenNorth.