Smart cities contest cultivating urban economic intelligence

It’s great to see more cities getting smart about being smart. Congratulations to Surrey for making the final seven in the latest Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) world rankings of the Top 7 Intelligent Communities of 2015, the only Canadian city on that list, following up on Toronto’s No. 1 ranking last year.

New York-based ICF, an economic and social development think-tank, singled out Surrey’s “smart-city systems,” such as its Innovation Boulevard targeted cluster of universities, clean tech, health tech and advanced manufacturing overseen by the 50-member Mayor’s Health Technology Working Group. It also mentioned the My Surrey app, which pops up the hours and features at the nearest youth centres, pools, skate parks, arenas, libraries, off-leash dog parks and more. It also lets users easily add city events to their smartphone calendars and spread the word about city events and news stories on social media. Cool.

Surrey is also given points for reducing greenhouse emissions with a 70% waste diversion level and a district energy system, as well as using digital access in libraries to reduce poverty.

The ICF rankings are based on indicators that measure “conscious steps to create an economy capable of prospering” using low-cost, high-speed communications and information technology.

Not to take anything away from Surrey, but Vancouver was ranked the seventh-smartest city in North America in 2013 by the online business magazine Fast Co. Exist, down from fourth the year before, and behind No. 1-ranked Seattle (vaulted to the top by its massive creative and entrepreneurial workforce).

Those rankings were based on indicators for the environment, economy, governance, living and mobility.

What’s emerging from all these rankings is the necessity – no longer just the option – of cities having up-to-date digital infrastructure and a funded strategy to build it out.

I remember touring Taipei in 2006, that year’s winner of most intelligent city, and seeing what citizens could do with one contactless smart card that paid for transit, taxis, buses, ferries, bike-share, parking, groceries, museums and retail goods and was also a library card.

It was developed by a $20 million public-private partnership. Digital services included a 24-7 fully automated library, where you could open the door, choose books, check them out and leave, just using the card. Talk about low-cost accessibility.

Helsinki, a world leader in being digitally smart, is experimenting with a mobility app that could drastically reduce car ownership. If the pilot project works as planned, residents who want to get anywhere in the city will be able to tap their mobile devices and choose between the nearest taxi, bus, shared car or shared bike. The goal is to make car ownership virtually unnecessary by providing cheaper and more convenient ways to get around without clogging up the city with underused cars.

Vancouver’s digital strategy, begun in 2013, is targeting making the city more efficient and citizens more engaged, no doubt aware of Helsinki’s success in making 98% of all government services accessible online. (On my Asian tour I saw a kiosk where you could renew your driver’s licence in a few minutes.)

When Vancouver assessed its digital status in late 2012, it discovered it fared poorly in almost every category compared with leading cities in North America. Since then it has hired a chief digital officer – the only one in Metro Vancouver – and begun opening up more data to public access, giving inspectors hand-held devices, increasing online services (love the PayByPhone parking app) and citizen engagement, and promoting the tech economy. By the end of the year, it expects to have 45 more city-owned locations joining the libraries in offering free Wi-Fi to help bridge the digital divide.

So nice work, Surrey. Enjoy the moment and good luck in the finals. But be aware that being smart about broadband efficiencies and digital opportunities is no longer a big breakthrough. It’s the new normal.

If you don’t build it, new businesses won’t come.

Peter Ladner (pladner@biv.com) is a co-founder of Business in Vancouver.