A Smart Plan for St. Albert's Future

St. Albert is on a quest: to get smarter.

That doesn’t mean ramping up the local population’s IQ points – instead, it means using technology to better the community in a variety of ways.

A committee is working on a smart city master plan.

Earlier this year, St. Albert became a founding partner of the Alberta Smart City Alliance along with NAIT, the University of Alberta, IBM and Cisco Canada.

A full-day smart city symposium will be held at the Enjoy Centre on Sept. 18.

St. Albert isn’t pioneering the smart city concept – it’s become a worldwide trend – but it does aim to become a “centre of excellence.”

But what makes a municipality smart? And what are the benefits to residents?

Smart city: more than a buzzword?

“The term smart city obviously is generic,” said Bruno Peters, who is the chair of the city’s master plan steering committee.

Peters works for a consulting firm, IBI Group. That company has an area of specialization in intelligence. He’s worked on several smart city plans, even though he says cities don’t always know their technology plan could qualify as “smart city.”

Key examples often cited in St. Albert of smart city technology are apps such as Spruce Up St. Albert, where you could report a pothole or other problems to the city, or NextBus for transit users.

But according to experts such as Peters and alliance members such as Cisco Canada, a smart city approach is more than throwing a couple of apps online or Wi-Fi hotspots.

Instead, it’s an approach to using technology in a collaborative way to benefit residents, whether it’s accessing data for better analytics, opening up that data for public use, finding efficiencies and hopefully savings at city hall or making traffic just a bit less frustrating.

It’s also about attracting technology or other forward-thinking companies to St. Albert and fostering a culture of innovation.

One of those forward-thinking companies is Cisco Canada, which was introduced to St. Albert’s mayor and council through Rampart’s Avenir high-tech neighbourhood development proposal a few years ago.

Avenir is still making its way through the city approval process, but Cisco is now a founding member of the alliance.

Rick Huijbregts, vice-president of industry transformation for Cisco Canada, said Cisco and other companies such as IBM form strong partnerships.

“It’s really about creating an ecosystem of partners and companies such as us and IBM but also other technology companies, other software companies and really create this kind of network of private sector/public sector companies that only together and by working together can really make a difference,” Huijbregts said.

Participating in efforts such as the Alberta Smart City Alliance helps Cisco and other companies determine what’s needed – something that entails taking off the “commercial hat” and contributing rather than focusing on a sale.

The smarty city industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years. Huijbregts said about five years ago in Canada, “it was pulling teeth” trying to pitch smart technology for municipalities.

Now if they go to a city or a convention, it’s a hot topic.

“I can say our team has tripled in size to just support it just in Canada,” he said. “From awareness, attention, mayors talking about it, city officials looking at the capabilities of smart city … I would say it’s been growing exponentially.”

St. Albert’s master plan approach is a good one, he added.

“We appreciate St. Albert’s foresight,” Huijbregts said, calling the planning process sustainable.

St. Albert’s plan

The committee Peters chairs is working on a master plan – and the next major step is public engagement.

Peters said engaging technology companies, youth and elders is important. Youth, because their view of technology is totally different from older generations. Elders, because of both long-term care and health but also their knowledge of strategies communities have tried to implement before, and what’s worked.

St. Albert’s smart city master plan will not lay out a list of nifty technologies for use by municipal employees or residents that should be implemented.

“The key thing to note in the development of the plan is that the plan will not identify or commit to specific projects necessarily or specific deployments of technology. It’s about putting in a framework, processes and policies that allow for the enablement of technologies not just now but in the future,” said Peters.

This way, technology that can’t be dreamed of today can be incorporated without a major plan overhaul.

St. Albert already has various “smart” technologies in play – from lights on sensors at the public works yard to the city’s online public statistics dashboard.

“We’re already doing a lot of it,” said Coun. Cathy Heron, the city council’s representative to the steering committee. “Instead of just doing these one-offs, we’re going to tie it to a centralized plan.”

Benefits could lie in using technology to use traffic data to move people better, or provide free public Wi-Fi – the city announced a partnership with Shaw recently for certain hotspots – or even putting a sensor on a garbage can that measures how full it is and reports to public works.

“Those kinds of things could save money and make residents happier,” Heron said. “There’s just so many technologies out there, it’s just astronomical what I’m learning.”

But they don’t want to just throw all sorts of technology at everything, Heron said – they need to have a plan.

Going forward, there needs to be consideration on which technologies add value to the community, said Travis Peter. Peter is the strategic and intergovernmental initiatives manager for the city – which these days seems to loosely translate to smart city manager.

He said a key question is what’s the benefit of smart city for residents?

There are three main benefits, Peter said.

The first is driving efficiency at city hall, which can turn into savings. The second is growing and bringing in business. The third is to improve programs and services.

Technology such as metering, where residents can see their utility consumption in real time could offer “more control for residents,” Peter said.

But not everything needs to be suggested by city hall.

“I don’t think all things have to be top-down driven government projects,” he said. “The city is an enabler of innovation.”

Smarter cars?

Well, smart cities aren’t after robot driven cars quite yet, but talk to a smart city enthusiast and almost inevitably examples of where smart technology can make a difference will be transportation-related.

Real-time light control, adapting to traffic patterns, accommodating emergency vehicles, apps that will show you what the parking situation is downtown – people are frustrated by traffic, and technology is seeking to ease the road rage.

Peters said in the smart city plans he’s worked on, transportation tends to be in the top two priorities.

“Transportation’s also one where there’s technology solutions available,” he said.

Problems and concerns

With a recent well-publicized breach of iCloud security, privacy and data are on many people’s minds.

Huijbregts said concerns about privacy and security are why corporations building smart city systems should consult with the experts such as Cisco and IBM or other technology companies.

“Privacy and security are top of mind. They cannot be afterthoughts,” Huijbregts said. “This is what companies like us do for a living. If we don’t do this right, we wouldn’t be in existence.”

But what about the data the city collects? Will that protect resident privacy?

The city’s smart city guy said he’s not concerned.

“The data we’re looking at isn’t going to be personalized,” said Peter, noting it will be used in an aggregated fashion.

Other challenges when it comes to implementing smart city technology is a deficit in good broadband access – an issue consultant Peters said isn’t as much of a concern in denser Europe, but is in Canada where some places barely have dial-up-type access to the Internet.

Everyone needs to be on an infrastructure that performs to take full advantage, Peters said.

“The City of St. Albert is not an exception,” he said, noting there is a need to improve broadband infrastructure in the city.

The city’s Peter said he’s a major advocate for enhanced broadband in St. Albert.

“We are currently looking at that,” he said.

The future city

A utopian future city would see every sports field with a soil-moisture monitor, every river and stream measuring water quality, air quality monitoring, sensors on the city’s pipes and even the garbage cans, said Peter.

But while there are concerns whether a city is too controlled and contrived it becomes “soulless,” Peter said a made-in-St. Albert-solution for an already established city means that’s not likely to happen here.

“All we’re doing is enhancing,” he said.

The Alberta Smart City Alliance, next week’s symposium and St. Albert’s master plan process are drawing attention to our city as well, something that thrills council’s smart city committee representative.

“Right now the positive for me is the attention St. Albert is getting, it’s huge. My email inbox is full of requests for the terms of reference for the committee, requests for me to go speak at conferences, how to get involved in the symposium,” said Heron. “Smart city is not just a St. Albert thing, it’s all over the world.”

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