What cities of the future need (besides technology)

The recent Intelligent City Forum triggered discussions about how the public sector organizations can ensure their IT investments pay off

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Two years ago, if someone had told you the largest taxi company in the world would be one without cars and without drivers, would you have scoffed at the notion? But then Uber came along.

Banking is changing; healthcare is changing. And cities will change too, says Rob van Gijzel, chair of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) and Mayor of Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

The city of the future must be more efficient, affordable and sustainable but — above all — humanized, he told an audience at the ICF Summit 2015 held in Toronto last week. He sees a lot of cities rolling out new technologies and then calling themselves “smart cities.” It’s a term he doesn’t like. He prefers “smart communities.”

Technology alone does not make a smart city: “I’ve seen some cities that try to make a city controlled by technology, but the people aren’t the central point,” says van Gijzel.“I don’t know if that will provide happiness for (citizens).”

It’s not so much about being “smart”; it’s about being adaptive, agile and resilient.

Toronto is one city experiencing a tremendous amount of change — and trying to build smarter communities. Currently there are 104 cranes in the air, says Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner with the City of Toronto. And a quarter of all office space in Canada is being built in 17 square kilometres of downtown Toronto.

“As we change, is it something we’re doing in a way that is in fact smart?” says Keesmaat.

Over the past several decades, many cities created sprawling infrastructure and now the debt is coming due. “We think of a technological fix — that there’s some sort of technological solution that’s going to transform congestion, for example,” she says. “Maybe we can coordinate streetlights, but the smartest things we can do from a city building perspective are rooted in the timeless principles of urbanism.”

Those principles include getting density right and ensuring there’s enough affordable housing for various demographics, from singles to families and the elderly. And there’s no technological “fix” that comes before addressing those fundamental issues.

Smart cities use big data for predictive decision-making, and success is often measured in terms of efficiency and productivity. “A lot of asset managers love that because then they can develop good budgets,” said John Jung, co-founder of the ICF. “But is it really building good cities? Are efficiency and productivity the best measures?”

When we talk about smart cities, we should be talking about a more holistic approach — from engaging all stakeholders, to promoting innovation and fostering digital inclusion. Technology is simply one of the tools to help us get there — not the answer in and of itself.

As Keesmaat says: “Being able to advance smart cities means ensuring it’s not done in isolation of the residents of the city who are, in fact, going to make that vision real.”

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