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How can we build smart cities of the future?

June 24, 2019

By Nancy MacDonald

We have the technology and the knowledge to build smart cities for people—it’s time we put them into action

When I talk to people about Smart Cities, I often see their imagination running wild, conjuring up visions of Blade Runner. But the fact is that many of us are living in smart cities now—and these cities are continually getting smarter. That is, they are using technology and intelligent planning to solve problems and make our communities more efficient, sustainable, and livable.

In some cities, smart technology has become part of peoples’ daily routine—intelligent-traffic management, air-quality measurement, infrastructure monitoring—but it’s hardly something you notice on your way to work. London, for example, is consistently ranked as one of the world’s smartest cities, but studies show that 68% of UK residents don’t know what a smart city is. I doubt those numbers are very different in other countries.

The fact is we already have the tools and technology to improve the places we live. Now it’s time to start prioritizing and applying them intelligently as holistic solutions to the benefit of our communities.

With that goal in mind, Stantec will host its first Smart City Idea Hackathon tomorrow in Toronto in partnership with The Globe and Mail. Participants from across the private sector, government, and academia will compete in teams to try to answer one big question: How can we use technology to ensure Toronto is a thriving, livable, and resilient city for all?

A panel of industry judges will select the winner, and I expect the competition to be fierce.

As more cities look to use technology and data to solve their challenges, they are looking for best practices and guides on how to plan their approach.

As an urban planner, I’m trained to listen to communities about their needs and then incorporate their ideas into the solutions we recommend—and I can honestly say that’s often where the best ideas come from. I have no doubt we’re going to hear exciting, original perspectives from some very smart people in Toronto’s community. While these ideas are certainly going to inform our work, we will also be making them available to anyone interested in the results.

The Idea Hackathon is a timely event, as it coincides with the public release of Sidewalk Labs’ master plan for the Quayside district in Toronto—a people-centered neighborhood that uses forward-thinking urban design and digital technology to achieve sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity. As Sidewalk Labs’ innovation partner on infrastructure design, we’ve been rethinking how we can put people at the center of mobility, move freight underground to open public space, manage waste more sustainably, and how a neighborhood can generate its own energy. This is a project that isn’t just thinking outside the box—it’s rethinking the box altogether.

Stantec has been Sidewalk Labs’ infrastructure design innovation partner on its Quayside proposal in Toronto. (Credit: Sidewalk Labs)

While there are always questions around how digital infrastructure can make a difference in our cities, the benefits are tangible and significant. A study from the McKinsey Global Institute found that digital solutions in our urban infrastructure can “reduce fatalities by 8 to 10%, accelerate emergency response times by 20 to 35%, shave the average commute by 15 to 20%, lower the disease burden by 8 to 15%, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 10 to 15%, among other positive outcomes.”

As more cities look to use technology and data to solve their challenges, they are looking for best practices and guides on how to plan their approach. That’s why we’ve also launched a Smart City Research Initiative with ESI ThoughtLab, Deloitte, Nokia, Visa, and others, to gain insight into Smart City practices in dozens of cities across the globe. The results of the research will be compiled into a Playbook for Becoming a Smart City, and will be released at the Smart Cities World Congress in Barcelona. It’s our hope that cities can learn from the research and each other’s best practices, so we can open and continue the conversation on improving communities for people.

Using digital infrastructure in the design of our communities will take big thinking, and that’s exactly what we’re after. We want to hear ideas that are practical, impactful, and scalable. I can imagine one day in the future we’ll look back and wonder how we managed our communities before these innovations.

At the end of the day smart cities are not just about sensors, networks, and data. Technology is an important piece of the puzzle, but we need intelligent planning to make our ideas work together and find solutions to urban problems that improve outcomes for the people living in our cities. Integrated mobility, adaptable utilities, better buildings, and thoughtfully designed public spaces have the power to change the way we live for the better.

Let’s get started.

  • Nancy MacDonald

    Nancy is our regional business lead for infrastructure in the UK and Ireland—she’s focused on supporting our Community Development and Transportation teams as they drive research and development.

    Contact Nancy
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