What is a Smart City?

Edmonton is now one of the finalists to compete in the next phase of Infrastructure Canada's Smart Cities Challenge. Finalists were announced this morning at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) Conference.

Out of 132 applicants, only 20 moved onto Phase 2, with Edmonton competing for $50 million in the top prize category against proposals from Montreal, Quebec City, Waterloo Region, and Vancouver/Surrey. The next Phase of competition will award Edmonton with a $250,000 grant from Infrastructure Canada to further develop our proposal before a winner is decided.

According to the Financial Times, Edmonton has the best economic potential of any North American city. This potential didn’t happen by accident, nor is it the product of any one sector alone, rather it’s due to a variety of factors from our excellent infrastructure to a low cost of living. As economic and technological change continues to progress quicker and quicker, the need for a robust, citizen-centred development strategy is crucial for Edmonton to cash in on it’s potential and become a global leader in the years to come.

In 2017, we developed our Smart City Strategy which aims to capitalize on Edmonton’s rich advantages and build on them moving forward. While the strategy is wide-ranging, for me, becoming a Smart City rests on four fundamental principles: improving service delivery, nurturing our burgeoning tech sector, building a more livable and dynamic city and creating a more socially cohesive city. These principles are at the root of our mission as a city. It’s our duty to provide services to our citizens from sewage to public transit but we also need to develop our local economy and support all our citizens in making this a city for everyone.

BETTER SERVICES

The primary goal of any municipality is to provide excellent services for its citizens. Services make up a large component of our annual $3.18 billion Operating Budget and impact every part of city life. Edmonton’s Police and Fire Rescue services alone comprise nearly a quarter of annual expenditures. Aside from the high profile services, much of what our City does flies under the radar, from water treatment to landscaping. I am proud of the excellent work we do as a city and of the thousands of people who make such work possible.

Given that services make up so much of what we do, it’s crucial that we make our service delivery as ‘lean and mean’ as possible. Edmonton is extremely competitive in cost of living as compared to other North American cities, and in order to preserve this advantage, we need to ensure that our services are as efficient as possible.

A great example of the ‘better service delivery’ principle in action would be incorporating GPS tracking and route-planning into our snow clearing service. This is something that we have been pursuing for years and that already exists in other municipalities, like Toronto. GPS tracking is not only good for citizens in planning their travel routes, but it also increases efficiency by allowing for better coordination and resource allocation for actual snow removal. If those clearing snow don’t know which roads have already been cleared or not, time and fuel are wasted, which is avoidable using real-time tracking and communication.

TECH ECONOMY

It’s no secret that tech is the sector of the future. Of course, we’ll always have service jobs, manufacturing, and beyond but in order for Edmonton’s economy to reach its potential, we have to play to our strengths in research and technology. As with Silicon Valley, a successful technology sector depends upon having a strong network, or hub in place. Edmonton is already a leader in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, and we need to continue to foster such innovation through initiatives such as Health City and the Edmonton Research Park. We are already a city of entrepreneurs, and it’s important that we support that startup culture to help us grow further. Whether that’s connecting entrepreneurs through organizations like Startup Edmonton or marketing our businesses through the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation.

Startup Edmonton connects entrepreneurs with a community, space, and skills to bring startup ideas to reality | http://www.startupedmonton.com/

Our post-secondary institutions have a long history of collaboration with business and a significant role to play in the future of our tech sector. Creating a robust and agile tech-based economy not only depends on the entrepreneurial spirit of our citizens but also on the research that underpins technological advancements. In order for us to succeed in the economy of the future, we need to allow our knowledge-based economy to grow. This means supporting research and innovation both at our universities and in our businesses and making Edmonton a more attractive place to live for well-educated individuals.

Canada has historically worried about  “brain drain” with the United States wherein well-educated folks migrated to work there, but we are beginning to reverse that trend and Edmonton, with its rapid development, vibrant culture, and exciting potential stands to gain from such a shift. Beyond brain drain, however, we need to look into ways to connect with Edmontonians who do migrate elsewhere and forge connections between them and innovators in Edmonton. While physical proximity does matter, in the digital era it is becoming less and less relevant. Commerce and innovation are not fixed to geography, so establishing Edmonton as a global tech leader isn’t about keeping all our innovators in the city but about establishing connections between all Edmontonians, whether at home or abroad. In other words, we shouldn’t worry so much about brain drain if we stay connected to our people.

LIVABILITY MATTERS A TON

The great cities of the future will be the ones that recognize the fundamental importance of livability in creating a strong, smart city. In order to ensure that all Edmontonians have an excellent quality of life, we have to foster our vibrant arts and culture scene and encourage recreation and nightlife. Being a great city isn’t just about having top-tier infrastructure or a strong economy, it’s also about creating an environment that is fun, accessible, and attractive to the young people who will be the drivers of our next economy. In addition to providing abundant options for play, a livable city is one that cares about sustainability and climate leadership. This means developing a resilient city that can handle environmental challenges like air pollution and flooding. A key component in establishing this climate resilience is ensuring that infrastructure is well built and well maintained and that we are engaging in smart urban planning that factors climate change into its design.

SOCIAL COHESION

All of our goals as a city are in vain if we don’t factor social cohesion into account. Creating better services for our citizens and fostering a vibrant economy are incredibly valuable but we need to remember that our mission as a municipal government is to serve our citizens and create a city that allows people to flourish. The principle of social cohesion underpins the entire Smart City strategy, indeed, Edmonton’s success has come because we are a city that thinks about the whole. Whether it’s our rich community league system or the End Poverty Edmonton initiative, we are a city of people who care about their neighbours and when looking to the future, we must always remember this fact.

Through initiatives like Make Something Edmonton and Sustainable Food Edmonton, we are supporting Edmontonians in improving their communities one project at a time. In addition to providing support for citizen-led projects, we need to continue offering recreational options for all our residents. Affordable recreation passes for those who are low income and accessible, diverse public libraries are two examples of how we can provide for all of our citizens. Ensuring that everyone has a common basis of opportunities for recreation and maintaining strong public spaces creates a city that is socially cohesive. Whether you are a lawyer, a student, or a cashier, Edmonton is the city for you.

As we rapidly approach a population of one million people and a new age of advancements in everything from artificial intelligence to electric cars, it’s time that we embrace our strengths and go boldly into the future. By harnessing the potential of our tech sector, streamlining our services, and maintaining strong social bonds we will continue to be a truly Smart City.