Forum Paper | 2018

Promise and Peril in the Smart City

In the past few years, a growing numbers of urbanists, planners, technology companies, and governance experts have started to use the term “smart city.” Some define smart cities in terms of using emerging and established technologies to improve the performance of municipal systems. Others take a more expansive view that embeds these new systems in a broader vision of urban regions characterized by innovation-based economic activity, a highly educated labour force, and policy-making that leverages these new technologies to confront stubborn urban problems.

The market for smart-city technologies – such as cutting edge networked sensors, big-data repositories, powerful analytics software, and smart grids – has gathered momentum, as leading technology suppliers develop products and services geared to this domain. Entire new communities are being developed using smart-city systems, in some cases as proof-of-concept living labs.

Yet the rapid adoption of consumer and security technologies that do not fall under the conventional “smart city” definition also have far-reaching impacts on municipal systems (such as housing, transportation, and policing), including those that have benefited from new smart-city systems. These include ride- and apartment-sharing apps, autonomous vehicles, and data-driven law enforcement or predictive policing applications.

In other words, the emerging challenge facing municipal policymakers is to determine the degree of investment or procurement in purpose-built smart-city technologies while adapting regulatory and governance systems to respond to changes arising from the adoption of services such as Airbnb and Uber. At the same time, policymakers must consider some unfamiliar issues in responding to smart-city developments, including equity, privacy, algorithmic bias, and data governance.

This Forum paper draws on the insights and professional experiences of four individuals with informed perspectives on these questions:

• Tracey Cook, Executive Director, Municipal Licensing and Standards, City of Toronto;
• Pamela Robinson, Associate Professor, School of Urban and Regional Planning, Ryerson University;
• Peter Sloly, Partner and National Security and Justice Lead, Deloitte Canada;
• Zachary Spicer, Visiting Researcher, Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance.

The report concludes by observing that policymakers must be smart when thinking about the smart city trend and ensure that technologies are not adopted for their promised efficiencies only.

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