By David Crane
Toronto’s “smart city” ambitions are taking big steps forward in bringing tech companies into the loop. City officials, starting with Toronto Mayor John Tory, used the recent City-Toronto Board of Trade “smart cities summit” to outline some of the steps planned so that a “smart city” means an “innovation city”.
This fits with one of the key targets set out in the report of the City-Board of Trade Working Group for a Smarter Toronto, Framework for a Smarter Toronto: A Call for Collaborative Action. The City, it said, should “enhance partnerships with industry, universities and incubators; rally Toronto’s innovation ecosystem around the co-creation of urban solutions,” including developing “a mechanism to vet and fast-track new technologies and companies into the City’s procurement system.” Toronto, for example, has something like 60 tech incubators where new technologies and companies can be nurtured.
One key step, as Tory outlined, will be to establish the Civic Innovation Office, which will be a bridge between the City and its agencies and the innovation and tech communities to help solve challenges facing the City. A director is expected to be named in the next couple of weeks. The office, at least initially, is being funded with a $500,000 grant from the Bloomberg Foundation in New York.
As Tory said when announcing the Bloomberg award in March, “Toronto is home to a large population of innovators, start-ups and tech companies which can help the City deliver better services to the public, while promoting a new approach to problem-solving within government.”
Rob Meikle, Toronto’s Chief Information Officer, told the summit that the City was looking at ways to improve its procurement process so that the tech sector can be engaged with the City much earlier in the definition and design of projects. There is also a concern to bring smaller tech companies and entrepreneurs into the process. Emerging companies need customers so access to procurement is critical.
At the same time, Meikle said, the City is in the final stages of an assessment of the City’s basic digital infrastructure, looking at the quality of communications networks and Internet access delivered by Bell Canada, Rogers Communications, Telus and Beanfield, in order to assess future requirements for a “smart city”.
There are three pillars to the “smart city” agenda, Mike Williams, who heads the City’s Economic Development and Culture Office, said. They are: Toronto can do much better in adopting technology to improve city services; improving the quality of telecommunications infrastructure for the digital world, a task of the private sector; and the creation of a powerful new economic engine for the City, developing the entrepreneurial companies that can sell their “smart city” technologies around the world.
There’s another big tech project coming up soon. This summer, Waterfront Toronto is expected to announce the name of the winning partner for a project to develop a future city demonstration site on 12 acres within easy walking district of the downtown commercial core.
This is the Quayside project, which, according to the RFP, “should reflect broader urban innovation, including technology-enabled, inclusive, connected communities,” using world-class digital infrastructure to achieve the benefits of emerging technologies, “including but not limited to the Industrial Internet of Things, analytics, and artificial intelligence – to support data-informed decision-making for residents, visitors, investors, employers, and service providers.”
It will be a testbed for cleantech, building construction, urban transportation and other technologies. One goal will be to help small companies scale up. Sidewalk Labs, part of the Google parent, Alphabet, is reportedly one of the companies looking to participate in Quayside.
A “primary objective” of the broader waterfront revitalization, Waterfront Toronto says, is to “enable Toronto to compete effectively with other top-tier global cities for investment, jobs and talent.” One way is by providing an environment “in which an urban innovation cluster can be established and thrive. Demonstration spaces, project testbeds, and industry-academic partnerships will be leveraged to accelerate the growth of this important cluster.”
Another innovation project, where construction is expected to start before the end of the year, is the Waterfront Innovation Centre, a roughly $150 million, 400,000 square foot development to attract companies in digital media, advanced visualization, healthcare and cleantech.
In a blog last year, Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff argued that “a combination of digital technologies – ubiquitous connectivity, social networks, sensing, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and new design and fabrication technologies – would help bring about a revolution in urban life,” a revolution, he wrote, whose impact “will be as profound as the steam engine, the electric grid, and the automobile, the three previous technological revolutions that have largely defined the modern city.”
Toronto’s goal is to be a part of the revolution. But a lot more work, in the private sector, the public sector, and academia, will be required as major cities around the world seek to become leaders in “smart city” technologies and systems. The global market is expected to be worth between $500 billion and $1.8 trillion by 2020, depending on definitions. It’s obviously worth aiming for.