The phrase “smart cities” has captured the imagination of policy wonks, conceptual artists and start-up founders alike. So when I saw that smart cities were one of the themes of this year’s Canadian Institute of Planners conference I was curious to see how urban and regional planners working across the country for all levels of government, as well as in the private and nonprofit sectors, would address the topic. Accent on Planning lived up to its name and from keynote speeches to casual conversations I discovered the implications of smart cities for Canadian communities of all sizes.
1) Smart cities can be planned
In his keynote address, American researcher Anthony Townsend traced the evolution of smart cities from crosswalks in Singapore, to air quality monitors in Amsterdam, to light rail in New Jersey. I was most interested to learn that the integration of digital technology into public spaces and services is increasingly the subject of masterplans. Although this trend shows a commitment to connected communities around the world, it also raises questions about how digital masterplans in places as diverse as Montreal, Dublin and Chicago will be evaluated against their stated objectives.
2) The term doesn’t just apply to cities
John Jung of the Intelligent Community Forum and Peter Vana of Parkland County Alberta introduced the issues facing smart cities in rural Canada. Jung observed: “Broadband can no longer be seen as a commodity, it has to be seen as a utility and you have to provide it in your community.” Vana reinforced the importance of Internet access, citing examples from Parkland County, where rural halls have been transformed into community hubs to increase computer skills and facilitate knowledge transfer across generations.
3) Youth engagement benefits people of all ages
Observations from Halifax and Toronto confirmed that leveraging the skills of digital natives benefits not only youth but everyone who has a stake in the planning process. Tristan Cleveland, Houssam Elokda and Elora Wilkinson presented on how Fusion Halifax used savvy social media and eye catching graphic design to bring together existing grassroots initiatives and improve Halifax’s downtown. Similarly, Ian Malczewski and Jo Flatt spoke about the role of the Youth Research Team in shaping the City of Toronto’s Youth Engagement Strategy. Both examples demonstrated that engaging youth does not have to come at the expense of collaborating with other stakeholders.
Overall, the conference highlighted the dynamic relationship between digital literacy, rural connectivity and youth engagement. Given Nordicity’s experience conducting evaluations of both social and economic impact at various spatial scales, I look forward to seeing how smart cities will be assessed as communities develop digital master plans and new technology continues to transform the way we think about social inclusion, artistic creation and return on investment.
Emily Macrae is a Research Analyst and the resident millennial at Nordicity’s Toronto office. She’s not on Snapchat but does enjoy the ironic use of hashtags in conversation.