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Are Northern cities smart or dumb?

The tide is running against us: we have to start swimming in the right direction.
David Robinson Economist, Laurentian University Director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development.

What will we do about our dumb Northern cities? All around the world, competitors like Waterloo and Toronto, Barcelona and Helsinki are bragging about getting smarter. New York and London are supposedly the smartest cities in the world. India’s prime minister has promised to build 100 smart cities. China plans to make every Chinese city smart.

So should Northern Ontario join the bandwagon? Would a Smart Northern City strategy increase employment, cut the cost of living and keep young people in the North? Maybe. But not having a strategy might be a recipe for disaster.

We know, thanks to a report by the Fraser Institute (penned by former Laurentian economics student Steve Lafleur), that Toronto and Ottawa got 98.6 per cent of all new net jobs in Ontario between 2008 and 2016. Our Northern cities lost jobs. Ontario’s smart cities are pulling in jobs while the rest of us seem to be going nowhere.

The truth is that cities almost everywhere are getting smarter. The Smart Communities movement has been working to apply information technology to urban problems since the 1990s. Boston, for example, now has a mobile app called Street Bump that uses your phone’s accelerometer to detect bumps and tell the city which roads need fixing.

Barcelona has garbage bins that tell the collectors when to come. Barcelona also has free Wi-Fi and phone charging at bus stops and an app that tells drivers where to find a parking spot. Streetlights shut off when there are no pedestrians. Barcelona estimates their smart system helped save $58 million on water and $37 million on lighting, increased parking revenues by $50 million per year, and generated 47,000 new jobs.

Other cities are focussing on improving citizen participation and making political institutions work better. Vancouver has an online system for consulting citizens on a whole series of issues. Bristol and Manchester are making the data they hold about city parking, procurement and planning, public toilets and the fire service available to the public. Helsinki already has 1,200 open data sets.

For some, a smart city is a city of smart people. They emphasize improved education systems and attracting the creative class. Other cities are pushing environmental improvement. Vancouver has raised the quality of city life by putting in bike lanes. Vienna has more charging stations for electric vehicles than any other city. Others have improved public transit, recycling, and health care for the poor, saving money and lives.

All of these smart innovations take smart politicians and committed citizens. Some are cheap, but many require serious investments. They take imagination and strong leadership. Can Northern cities keep up?

We are certainly not attracting droves of smart people. Northerners are more car-dependent than the citizens of larger urban areas. We don’t have big universities with urban planning programs or herds of startups eager to create customized software. We may not have the talent needed to deploy cutting edge technologies, and our cities may be too small to justify the development cost.

If our cities are not very smart to start with, we’ll just have to be smarter about getting smart. The first step is to make sure all our politicians learn about the way information technologies and imagination can make healthier, happier and more competitive communities. Citizens can start the education process by asking council members questions about smart tech. They can email councillors stories about innovations around the world with suggestions about how to apply them locally. Citizens can do consciousness-raising.

Councils can start by asking staff for lists of innovations. They can send influential council members to Smart City conferences. Even better, they can take members of the local press with them to help get ideas out to the public. They can offer prizes to university students for the best proposals and ask citizens to rank them online. They can enter the federal contest for smart city funding.

Figuring out how to make Northern cities smarter may seem like a distraction from the heavy day-to-day workload of councils, but it is actually a life-or-death issue for communities. The tide is running against us: we have to start swimming in the right direction.