Canadian Cities Prepare for Smart Cities Challenge

Canadian communities are lining up to compete for millions in lucrative funding as part of a new government-organized competition designed to foster greater innovation in urban centres.

The Trudeau government’s Smart Cities Challenge is launching this fall, and although details remain scarce, some municipalities are seriously preparing for the $300-million competition.

“Cities are ready and willing to innovate,” said Travis Peter, manager of smart city and innovation for the City of St. Albert, Alta., and director of the Alberta’s Smart Cities Alliance, which partners municipalities with industry and technology to spur the development of smart city initiatives.

“We understand that [within the challenge] there is that notion of the best project, the best idea; something that is truly innovative, something that can serve as a model to other communities across Canada, that is going to be very compelling.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) unveiled the Smart Cities Challenge at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference in June. It’s structured as a three-round competition that will award millions to communities willing to embrace ‘Smart City’ innovations.

Prizes for each of three rounds will include one large prize of $50-million, two prizes of $10-million for mid-sized communities, one prize of $5-million for a small community, and one prize of $5-million available for an Indigenous community. The challenge’s website says municipalities should partner with residents and industry.

Nadine Archambault-Chapleau, spokesperson for Infrastructure Canada, which will organize the competition, told The Hill Times that additional details on the challenge will be provided later this fall, after its launch.

A Smart City uses information and communication technology to manage a city’s assets, such as public transportation or power systems. Using sensors and other infrastructure connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), Smart Cities can collect real-time data to improve efficiency. It uses technology to reduce energy consumption, save money, reduce traffic, and overall improve urban life.

IoT technology can be anything integrated into the internet, such as a heater controlled remotely by your smartphone. Internet infrastructure is a key component of smart cities, and all municipalities interviewed told The Hill Times they were working to expand broadband and fibre optic access.

The City of St. Albert, a founding partner of Alberta’s Smart Cities Alliance, implemented its own Smart City Master Plan last year, improving city service delivery, supporting economic development efforts, and identifying organizational efficiencies over time.

The plan has been used to implement a real-time air quality monitoring system, public-use electric vehicle charging stations, and an interactive construction projects map. This year the city will complete installations of remote water meters, which will enable residents and businesses to monitor consumption in real time.

“[The water metre system] will be able to notify a resident of a leak,” said Mr. Peter, based on the increased rates of water consumption.

Eventually, the city wants to use smart technology to sense traffic on the roads and make intersections safer. For example, Mr. Peter said if it sensed a longer vehicle, it would make a green traffic light last longer so the vehicle could safely pass through.

Ottawa residents may already be familiar with a smart city technology, with many using OC Transpo’s 560 system to know the exact timing of the next bus according to GPS estimates.

Michael Tremblay, president and CEO of Invest Ottawa, wants to leverage the Ottawa’s technological minds for their entry into the challenge.

“Eight per cent of our employee base are actually tech employees in the city,” he said, adding that it’s the highest rate in Canada.

Mr. Tremblay said Ottawa recently held a smart cities symposium, where industry and city leaders discussed how to make the city more technologically advanced. The goal is to improve the economy and help lift citizens out of poverty by reducing the digital divide and stimulating innovation.

An example of this is partnering with groups like Ottawa Civic Tech, which uses computer programming to solve civic issues. In the future, Ottawa hopes to be able to provide open-air burning permits online and build an open database called Open 311.

Mr. Tremblay said the prize money is not a lot in terms of city operations spending, so the key is finding projects with the most impact. He added that Ottawa is 80 per cent rural, so agricultural advancements are a focus, along with using technology to improve government services.

“If there’s a challenge it’s in selecting which of many projects that are actually very worthy of focusing on,” he said. “[It’s] autonomous vehicle technology that would drive the equipment that makes all this work, and we happen to have that technology in the city.”

Mark Fox, a distinguished professor of urban systems engineering at the University of Toronto, said smart infrastructure is going to be hacked.

“To me, that’s the scary situation, as we become more interconnected, can someone commandeer some portion of the city system to their advantage? And the answer is yes,” he said. “Day in and day out, it has been demonstrated that the security of the systems we have in place are inadequate to stop hackers from getting in.”

He noted there are downsides to many of the common initiatives of smart cities. For example, just because a city publishes open data does not mean anyone is going to use it, and autonomous vehicles are further into the future than most people think.

“People that write about it and think about it don’t really understand where the technology is at this time,” he said, noting that the Uber autonomous car needs human intervention about every 800 hours to prevent an accident, as opposed to Google’s autonomous vehicle that needs intervention every 5,000 hours. The average human driver intervenes to stop an accident every 1.2 million hours.

Using an app to improve a narrow service, such as paying for a parking meter, is not really making a smart city, he said, where computer systems are interdependent and integrated. Instead, it is increasing the efficiency of a narrow service.

“Increasing the efficiency of it in 2017 is taking advantage of the technology that every human being has, and offering that service through that technology,” he said, meaning providing services via the internet or smartphones.

Bill Martin, mayor of Summerside, P.E.I., made a friendly bet over a bottle of wine with Moncton, N.B., Mayor Dawn Arnold that Summerside will win the challenge. The population in Summerside is about 15,000, whereas the population of Moncton is about 70,000 people. Both are considered smart city leaders in the Atlantic region.

Mr. Martin said his community excels in using green technology as 46 per cent of the community’s power comes from wind farms. There is less demand for wind power overnight, meaning the community must sell it to New Brunswick.

Summerside’s Heat for Less Now program is being used by 400 homes and replaces oil and gas systems with Electric Thermal Storage (ETS) systems. The hot water tanks and heaters download the wind energy overnight into their system and use it during the day. Those who purchase or lease an ETS system are charged $0.08 per kilowatt hour to help displace the initial cost.

“We’re looking to add a 16-megawatt solar garden, which will get us up to 70 per cent [renewable energy] if everything comes to pass,” Mr. Martin said. “Every home in our new subdivisions, we offer to put in a free electric car charger.”

The city also owns four electric cars, has several hundred waterless toilets and urinals, and recently signed onto a pilot project with Samsung to run their recreational complex with solar power.

“It’s much much cheaper for us to generate our own electricity than it is to purchase it on the open market,” he said, adding Summerside has spent in the tens of millions of dollars on smart city initiatives but will save more money long term.

Ms. Arnold said the city’s use of apps, such as the HotSpot Parking app, are key features of their smart city initiatives.

“It’s not just about technology though, it’s about making lives better and easier for citizens,” she said.

Story Tags:  AlbertaCanadaEngagementFundingInfrastructureSt. Albert