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“The government no longer has a monopoly on information. Our structures of government are outdated.” Stephen Goldsmith, former deputy mayor of New York and now director of innovation at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, set the scene bluntly as he sat on a panel at SAP’s 2nd Annual Smart Cities Forum on March 7. “Citizens see the services they can get from the likes of Amazon, and want the same from government”.

Densely populated and growing cities around the world know the demands and challenges they face, but they are also waking up to the opportunities today’s technology brings. Fittingly playing host to the event after being named the world’s 8th most digitally innovative city in late February, Toronto unleashed its enterprise solutions services director Fazal Husain to the stage to talk about what the city is doing.

He led with the analogy that cities have to learn to walk before they can run in the digital economy. He explained that unlike corporations and other large organizations, which have a more vertical product line, the city has 44 different and varied services.

To tackle that challenge, the city began looking at it from the perspective of business, more so than IT. That shifted the focus to the key business processes the entire enterprise builds on: HR, finance, payroll and procurement.

Once that foundation was set, it started to become a digital reinvention of the organization. Had it not been looked at it this way, and instead 15 disparate technologies were used to run the 44 lines of business, change would have incremental and insubstantial and the reinvention wouldn’t have been initiated. This is what Fazal defines as the art of learning to walk.

Thanks to all the work done behind the scenes in Toronto, learning to run as a world-class digital entity became a much more distinct possibility. The city is now looking realistically at web-enabled IoT technologies and working more effectively with community partners using its open data sets.

Toronto isn’t the only Ontario city making its name for itself as a smart city. Mississauga, an 800,000-strong city that’s grown rapidly in recent years as part of Toronto’s urban sprawl, was represented by CIO Shawn Slack at Smart Cities Forum. The city has enjoyed its own fair share of international attention and recognition as a burgeoning smart city, and for good reason.

Dealing with the pressures of GTA-wide traffic that could see up to six million people travelling through and around the city every day, Mississauga is well into the implementation of an advanced traffic management system – a network of 750 traffic light sensors linked to a data analysis dashboard.

Then there is the cloud-based, city-wide network of LED streetlights kitted out with radios and sensors that determine when they should be brighter or dimmer and send alerts when they need replacing. If that’s not impressive enough, how about a sensor network in the waterways that detects threats from heavy rainfall or pipe leaks, sending automated alerts to make life a lot easier for emergency services?

Not ones to be outdone, Joyce Evans, deputy city treasurer and director of revenue for the City of Kitchener, and Alex Ahkoon, manager of ERP business transformation, made the case for Kitchener’s emergence as a smart city.

The city is privileged to be home to world-class tech leaders and incubators in a region that is often referred to as “Silicon Valley North”, and is using that to its advantage. Networks of smart LED streetlights, smart utilities services and free public Wi-Fi look are set to become the norm, and city staff are working with local innovators at the famed Communitech Hub to take things even further.

It’s amazing to see the civic innovation taking shape across southern Ontario. As a resident of Toronto, I can feel that I’m right in among something special, and Smart Cities Forum only made that feeling grow stronger.

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