A smart city needs all the bells and whistles — the sensors and signals, computers and robotics that its skin-and-bones architecture demands.
But its blood — its human plasma — is the data of our lives.
And should Toronto attempt another smart-city project over the next decade, it’s the control and distribution of that human data — its governance — that will make or break the venture, experts say.
“A smart city at its core is about getting use out of data and limiting harm from that data,” says Richard Lachman, director of research development at Ryerson University’s faculty of communication and design.
Thus, Lachman says, a successful smart city in Toronto 2030 will likely find its roots in the failed Sidewalk Labs project in the Port Lands, which finally fizzled out in May after years of hype.
That Google-backed plan was sunk in large part by its narrow focus on technology — the skin and bones of a smart city — rather than the data that would course through its chips and circuits, he says.
That fixation on unfettered technology fed by unchecked human data caused many to fear their privacy would be imperilled and to balk at the whole enterprise, Lachman says.
“As a result of that — the backlash against Sidewalk and then them pulling out — we’re able to see much more (what we) need to do first,” he says.
“We need to figure out what benefits we want and what risks there are and what we’re willing to do in order to gain extra utility.”
While most experts agree the privacy of data is paramount, there is also a strong belief that Toronto’s future could rest largely on growing a smart city over the decade and that there is both the untapped real estate and sociological climate here to do so.
At its core, a smart city spreads a net of electronic hardware, algorithms, apps and technologies that allow for the tracking of information and the use of that data to affect — hopefully — positive changes.
“It’s really about being able to track more information and then make more intelligent decisions about where we deliver services and what kind of services we want to deliver,” Lachman says.
The COVID-19 crisis provides an unfortunate but apt example of the dilemma presented in that smart city scenario.
That is the possibility of using cellphone location data to track a person’s movements and interactions over a set period time in the event they test positive for the virus.
“Six months ago I think all privacy activists, all technology activists would have said ‘that’s crazy, I don’t want all my movements tracked,’ ” Lackman says. “But because of COVID I can say ‘I do want that benefit.’ ”
The key to a successful smart city then is to — transparently and with force of law — lay out what data can be tracked, in which situations, who gets to use it and for how long, Lachman says.
Where marketers can stalk every keystroke or credit card purchase to hawk mattresses or patio furniture on your internet feed, a city has far more weighty fare to deal with, he says.
“As a city we connect with law enforcement, we connect with public health, we connect with immigration status,” Lachman says.
“So we have to be much more deliberate and say if we want a public health benefit, like contact tracing, then I want to limit where that data goes and not make it available to, say, law enforcement or public school truancy officers.”
Data can allow the city to automatically change traffic lights or highway signage to instantly ease traffic flow or to close roads to automobiles and create pedestrian malls and patios.
It can also be instrumental in making long-term decisions about transit routes or bike lane construction.
“It’s just there can also be other things that we don’t want driven by that data,” Lachman says.
For example, while using cellphones to track a motorist’s speed might be permissible and even desirable in determining where to build traffic calming structures, no one would want to see speeding tickets showing up in the mail because of that surveillance, he says.
Indeed, Lachman says, many of the decisions on data dissemination should be made at the individual level in a smart city scenario, with people being able to enter or withdraw from data streams at will.
“You may be a person of colour and you don’t believe carding has gone away, you might not want to share the same data as some other members of society,” Lachman says. “Those rights and that reality need to be protected.”
While such opt-out options can weaken any data set’s predictive power — making intelligent decisions less certain — they are essential to gain a consensus that would allow smart city plans to go forward here, Lachman says.
However the governance of such issues is structured, a smart city should certainly be built here, says the University of Toronto’s Tamer El-Diraby, who has studied such projects intensely.
El-Diraby, an expert in infrastructure asset management, says smart city growth is inevitable around the world.
And, he says, Toronto would lose its ability to lead the country economically and wade into the urban backwaters globally should it forgo a smart city project.
If it were to get out front, however: “it will drag Ontario, it will drag Canada with it,” he says.
“And more importantly ... it will be the shining example of the best way to do this. It’s our duty to jump in and make the smart city example.”
El-Diraby sees three layers to a smart city — the first and, surprisingly, easiest being the Jetsons-like hardware it would operate.
“That includes the internet of things, the ... driverless car, the smart bridge, the smart sidewalk and so forth,” he says, adding many of these technologies are currently available.
The second layer, El-Diraby says, consists of the ever-improving data streams that will fuel and direct the hardware — data that was rife with errors in the past.
“Now we have this (improved) data and now we have the ability to be on the cusp of major breakthroughs with what to do with our data,” he says.
“And that inherently means we can help the city to be more efficient ... more sustainable and the communities to be more informed.”
But the third layer, El-Diraby says, is the most important though most uncertain and challenging — one he labels governance and community empowerment.
In this more ephemeral layer, he says, lies the real potential for Toronto to achieve enormous technological and economic advancements through the opportunities — many not yet dreamed of — the smart city will offer as it evolves.
“The smart city will open new horizons for new business models, new companies, new industries,” he says.
“And if we are in a reactive mood to these new developments then we will be missing the post.”
A smart city evangelist, El-Diraby uses as an example from late 18th-century Britain to illustrate his point.
Then, he says, a cabal of English businessmen and economists predicted the growing city of London’s economy would be stuck fast in horse manure in a matter of years, even as the automobile was making its noisy debut.
“And eight years later Henry Ford completely removed this fantastic, smart (manure) estimation because a complete new horizon opened,” El-Diraby says.
His point is not so much that smart city denialists have their heads stuck in horse manure. It’s more that the car also brought with it mammoth yet unforeseeable new industries — such as auto insurance and repair, highway construction, courier services, drive-throughs, motels and long-distance trucking to name a few.
In the same way, Toronto would miss out on the industries and innovations that smart cities will surely inspire.
“If we end up (concentrating) on what the smart cities will look like or how the data is going to be available or not available and neglect this huge opportunity, Canada will be left behind,” El-Diraby says.
“We need to encourage the community at all various levels to take on this new advantage.”
El-Diraby looks to the lowly pothole to illustrate his thinking.
He says a smart city network of driverless cars could detect and report any encountered pothole in a matter of nanoseconds.
“But what would they do? They will send a request to the city to fix that pothole,” he says.
“How long will it take the city to fix that pothole?”
The answer, by current standards, is likely many quadrillions of nanoseconds (or about 11 days).
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“But we could have a new business model for running the streets where they can provide instantaneous service to (the smart-car operator) instead of waiting for the city to do that,” El-Diraby says.
“We open an industry for street management that never existed before.”
Just as governments are traditionally slow with pothole repairs, El-Diraby also worries that they are not nimble enough to be custodians of the data a smart city needs to run full throttle.
“When it comes to cities, data is in the hands of government, which is the slowest player of them all,” he says.
“When it comes to the municipal, city level, the data is not there, it is not reliable and the government does not have a model, a plan, a future where they will not only adapt to the evolution, but will make that evolution.”
El-Diraby says data would be better off handled by a separate entity that could collect and disseminate it with the same efficiency that banks have to run financial transactions.
Data needs to be instantaneous and agile, if smart city visions like this are to be are to be achieved, El-Diraby says.
“If you have this data about my phone, but also you have data about my schedule and also data about the weather but also more data about the current pollution, you can advise me about what to do,” he says.
“Maybe you can tell me ‘if you walk today from here to here, then instead of taking a taxi you’ll be able to take the subway and you’ll save this money and this much emissions.’ ”
More than many other municipalities, Toronto is in a position to build a smart city from the ground up, says Natasha Tusikov, an assistant professor in York University’s social science department, who has studied the subject extensively.
Many cities embarking on such projects, especially in Europe, are fully built out and will have to retrofit new technologies into densely packed streets and neighbourhoods, Tusikov says.
“Toronto is different because it (has) a large swath of former industrial land with really nothing on it,” she says, referring to the Port Lands.
“Land where an entity could start fresh.”
Tusikov, however, says a smart Toronto should respond to the needs and desires of its residents, rather than offer the splashy, but often superfluous features that Sidewalk Labs was schilling.
“The way Sidewalk Labs approached it was to create a sensor-embedded smart city that would collect a lot of data and address issues that maybe people didn’t think were priorities,” she says.
“They started with what they could build or sell, instead of real problems.”
And rather than the Sidewalk Labs model — where Google would own all the innovation and toss local industries bit work — a new smart city here could spread the wealth, Tusikov says.
“A different vision would be to have a variety of ... entities, maybe some non-profit, local or multinational,” she says.
“And all of the different entities could provide different products and services.”
In the vast, built stretches of Toronto, smart city technologies could help solve transit and housing problems, Tusikov says.
But such enduring problems would still require the multi-level political commitment and funding that they’ve lacked for decades.
“Affordable housing? You can’t simply solve that by adding technology,” Tusikov says.
Regardless of its eventual configurations, a smart city might find a warmer sociological environment in Toronto than in many other cities, says David Soberman, Canadian National Chair in strategic marketing at the U of T’s Rotman School of Management.
Soberman, an expert in Big Data, agrees that privacy will of paramount importance in any smart-city project.
But Toronto may sit in a sort of Goldilocks zone between a resistance to any intrusions on personal information and an accepted or enforced lack of privacy that exists in other nations.
“So we’re in a middle ground and when you’re in a middle ground it gives you a lot of chance to experiment,” Soberman says.
“You can experiment with collecting information, you can do tests to see what people will accept. (It) gives us a chance to experiment and learn and to find ways of using this information that people and Canadian will find acceptable.”
As well, Soberman says, Canadians have a greater respect for government — a belief that it would protect privacy rights in particular — than people in many other nations.
“I think that creates a positive environment. If something’s got the stamp of approval by the government, people are going to feel protected,” he says.
In the end, Lachman says the experience of COVID-19 in hard hit Toronto might well make residents here more open to the idea of group tracking, and it’s potential to improve lives.
“We’re thinking of one another, we’re realizing our group decision making might affect one another,” he says.
But that does not diminish the need for intense, expert debate on smart-city governance, prior to the first sensor embed.
“There absolutely may be an appetite,” Lachman says.
“What I want to caution is you don’t make a decision with a gun to your head.”