Want to build the city of the future? Here's your chance

Vancouver and Surrey are teaming up for a Canada-wide competition that could net a $50-million prize. The two cities want input from residents on what a "smart city" could look like.

Vancouver, Surrey calling for ideas for $50-million challenge to make urban centres smarter

City officials want residents to pitch their "smart city" ideas for a chance to shape the future of Vancouver and Surrey. (Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock)

Imagine an app that updates the locations of apartments for rent in real time, or intelligent street lights that only turn green when cars are waiting. 

Or picture a map — Minority Report-style, of course — that aggregates crime data, pinpointing areas where assaults and robberies occur most often.

All are ideas actually under consideration by the cities of Vancouver and Surrey, which have teamed up to compete for the $50-million jackpot offered by the federal Smart Cities Challenge.

And, crucially, all these possible worlds were conceived by Lower Mainland residents and businesses — a result of a crowdsourcing project called Smarter Together.

Launched last month, the project aims to assemble input from residents for the funding bid to the federal government.

Residents weigh in during a Smarter Together event. (City of Vancouver)

If the Lower Mainland's submission wins, it could deploy a far-reaching network of sensors, fibre-optic cables, data collectors, and — perhaps one day — vast, translucent touch screens throughout the two cities.

"As the two largest cities in B.C., a winning submission for Vancouver and Surrey has the potential to affect transformational change for the cities," officials said in a release.

The project is calling for submissions in any of six focus areas:

  •   Economic opportunity.
  •   Empowerment and inclusion.
  •   Environmental quality.
  •   Healthy living and recreation.
  •   Mobility.
  •   Safety and security.

Data already changing landscape

In the same municipal office where Vancouver's 311 calls end up, an LCD screen glows with colour-coded squares, each one representing a problem to be tackled.

The contraption beside Jessie Adcock, chief technology officer for the City of Vancouver, is known as "The Dashboard," and it visualizes the thousands of emails and calls the city receives every week. 

Adcock can tell what's paining neighbourhoods with merely a glance.

"The bigger the box, the more service requests that are coming through," she explained. "It gives us a visual cue to trigger some additional action."

So officials can pay more attention to the city's biggest potholes, for instance. 

"It's about, how do we keep our finger on the pulse of the city? How do we know what's happening?"

The future has already arrived in this Vancouver office, where Adcock shows off the city's newest technological venture. (Caroline Chan/CBC)

Smart tech like The Dashboard, she says, gives cities a chance to run more efficiently with that bird's-eye view.

"A year ago we wouldn't have been able to tell you what was the top call just standing here like this. We would have had to run a report — many more steps to achieve now what just is here on our screens every day."

But the point of a smart city isn't to play with flashy screens, drones or robots, she says, but to simply deliver better services.

"It's not about technology as the outcome," she said. "It's the enabler to the outcome."

With files from On the Coast's Caroline Chan