Tag Archives: TVO

The winter of smarter cities and why that’s a bad thing

In the early 90s, people soured on AI and work on it stopped. That period was known as AI Winter.

Smarter Cities is an idea likely in its own winter period. I concluded that when I watched the segment above on the subject. The segment’s focus (according to its Youtube comment)  was this:

In 2017, the City of Toronto embarked on a project with a subsidiary of Google called Sidewalk Labs. The idea was to develop a parcel of Toronto’s industrial waterfront in order to create a “smart city”. At first, the idea was met with a lot of enthusiasm, but eventually a number of concerned citizens, journalists and planners started to raise questions about data privacy, competition and public policy issues that Sidewalk Labs could not answer. What happened to Sidewalk Toronto and why are we so drawn to the idea of futuristic urban utopias? To help answer that: John Lorinc, author of “Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology and the Pursuit of Urban Utopias;” Josh O’Kane, author of “Sideways: The City Google Couldn’t Buy;” and Vass Bednar, Executive Director, Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program at McMaster University.

It’s a good segment with good people critical of the idea of smart cities. Watching it, I could see why you might think that any city would be unwise to aspire to be a smarter one.

If you did think that, I’d ask you to think again. I believe cities, provinces, states and countries all benefit from becoming smarter. For example in Ontario, smart meters were deployed across the province to more accurately measure power consumption and help people shift their usage. Wastewater was measured during the pandemic to see if things are getting better or worse. And it’s not just public initiatives that matter: private services like Waze give drivers a view of the whole city and let them choose the best routes as they make their way to their destination.

Whenever there is municipal or state data available and software to process it, then you have a smarter city. It’s not at the scale that an organization like Google wanted it to be, but a smarter city nonetheless.

I strongly feel we need more of this. Smarter cities can be greener cities. Smarter cities can be better functioning cities. That’s why I am glad that Toronto is continuing to explore this, with things like its Digital Infrastructure Strategic Framework. And it’s not just Toronto: here is a list of the top 10 smart cities in the world and what makes them smarter.

It’s not just me that thinks this. Here’s Pete Buttigieg talking about smart city grants, and here is Bill Gates is talking about smart cities in Arizona.

Here’s to smarter cities. Smarter cities are better cities.

P.S. Wastewater examination is a smarter city activity, I think. Here’s more on wastewater surveillance for public health at Science.org. As for me, I check the province’s wastewater signal every week to keep track of COVID-19.

Also, some time ago I worked on the smart meter project for the province of Ontario. I led the infrastructure design and build for part of the overall system. Here is an IBM red paper I contributed to that talked about how to better design systems involved in smarter cities/planet projects.