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How an Alberta municipal alliance could redefine ‘smart cities’

St. Albert is working with the private sector and educational institutions to show how a commitment to collaboration could pay off


St. Albert Alberta Smart City Alliance

Smart cities aren’t smart because they’re super-wired and ultra-connected. Yes, that’s part of it — but smart cities are built on more than technology. They involve collaboration between people, processes and data, on top of a solid foundation of technology.

And smart cities are made up of much more than government itself. That means municipal IT departments can’t work in isolation — not just from other city departments, but from partners in the private and educational sectors.

Cue the city of St. Albert. If you’re not from the Prairies, you’ve likely never heard of it. But this bedroom community north of Edmonton realized there’s no reason a city of 60,000 should be left behind, technologically speaking. So city councilors are taking a leading role in what a smart city should look like — and they’re starting the conversation for the whole province.

That’s not to say other Canadian cities are behind the eight ball. Indeed, the Intelligent Communities Forum (ICF) has recognized three Canadian communities to be among the seven most intelligent in the world: Winnipeg, Toronto and Kingston, Ont.

You might be scratching your head at this. After all, most of us don’t perceive these cities as hyper-connected IT hubs. (Winnipeg, to me, equals brutal winters, not network sensors.)

But these cities have earned this status not necessarily because they’ve adopted the most advanced technology, but because they’ve embraced a culture of collaboration and cooperation around intelligent communities, Rick Huijbregts, general manager of IoE and Smart + Connected Communities with Cisco Canada, told expertIP.

St. Albert may be a newcomer to smart cities, but it’s also starting the conversation in the region by announcing a “Smart City Alliance” that includes the private sector (Cisco Canada and IBM Canada) and educational institutions (the University of Alberta and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology).

St. Albert already has several smaller initiatives on the go, such as an app that allows citizens to report potholes. Some initiatives underway include a traffic management system, remote water meter technology and civic building controls.

But it’s bringing these isolated initiatives together and looking to create a smart city movement — one that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.

Together, the alliance will start to identify projects they can work on collectivity (and test them out at the U of A and NAIT). The goal is to create the fabric of an intelligent community that can be replicated in other parts of the province and, ultimately, the rest of Canada, said Huijbregts.

The entire concept of a smart city is rather nebulous. St. Albert’s approach, which combines the public, private and educational sectors, is a smart one (no pun intended). Each sector has a role to play. And it makes sense to work together, to share best practices. After all, why reinvent the wheel?

The underlying foundation of smart cities, though, is the ready availability of high-speed broadband. Even if a city already has the necessary “plumbing,” it will likely need to expand that as more services are layered onto it — and more devices are accessing those services.

Typically, smart cities rely on networks of sensors, cameras and wireless devices to collect data, report issues and apply analytics. First comes strategy, but then will come the technology to support it.

Governments — particularly those at the municipal level — aren’t typically considered leaders in technological innovation. But St. Albert is showing that even small cities can think big and start making an impact.

 

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