What makes a city smart? Technology alone can't solve all Winnipeg's problems, says Susan Huebert

The Smart Cities competition looks for technology-based solutions to big city problems. But there's a danger to depending on technology to solve all of Winnipeg's problems, says Susan Huebert.

Smart Cities Challenge focuses on technological innovation, but that has its own quirks and limitations

The federal government's Smart Cities Challenge 'encourages communities to adopt a smart cities approach to improve the lives of their residents through innovation, data and connected technology.' But often, more low-tech solutions are needed to solve a city's problems, says Susan Huebert. (GaudiLab/Shutterstock)

Electronic communication began with a typo.

According to Werner Herzog's documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World, technical difficulties caused the first electronic message ever sent — in 1969 — to reach its destination with the last three letters of the word "login" cut off.

And so, the first message sent online was simply "lo."

Since then, of course, technology has experienced great improvements, although problems often still affect the wired world.

And that's why, when I attended a recent Smart Cities forum calling for technology to solve many of Winnipeg's problems, I had more than a few concerns.

The main problem with technology, of course, is that it can let you down when you most need it — and sometimes, the low-tech solutions are still the best.

I remember encountering daily technological problems when I was working at the public library in Inuvik, N.W.T. For some reason that I have yet to discover, the internet in the library would cease to work for about an hour, sometime around 12:30 (depending on whether we were on standard or daylight saving time). 

CCTV cameras at Chateau-de-la-Croe, a villa owned by Russian businessman Roman Abramovich, on the French Riviera. Although the Smart Cities Challenge focuses on connecting cities through such technological innovation, too often new technology can let us down, says Susan Huebert. (Dominique Boutin/TASS via Getty Images)

Besides being frustrating, as we could not do much of our work and patrons never seemed to remember the daily outage, the experience made me wonder about the wisdom of depending on something as seemingly fragile as the digital world.

Physical books could be damaged by water or fire, or they could fall apart through long use or deliberate vandalism, but at least they would not be affected by sunspots or a shift in the magnetic North Pole or polar bears blocking satellite signals.

Smart Cities Challenge

Perhaps that experience was in the back of my mind when I attended the City of Winnipeg's Smart Cities Challenge public forum on March 5 at the Millennium Library.

The purpose behind the evening was to discuss ways that Winnipeg could win $50 million through the federal government's Smart Cities Challenge, which "encourages communities to adopt a smart cities approach to improve the lives of their residents through innovation, data and connected technology."

The Winnipeg forum focused on ideas that would help solve the city's problems in one of four areas: intelligent mobility (traffic congestion, train crossings, etc.), smart transit, smart buildings and infrastructure, or safety and health.

After a few short presentations, participants divided into groups according to their interests. Each group, or individuals within the groups, were then supposed to propose ways in which smart technology could help to address the issues.

The leaders of each group — officials from Winnipeg Transit and other experts in their fields — would then take these suggestions back to their offices and later consider them for the final Winnipeg Smart Cities submission.

The idea of consulting the public seemed like a good one, although I was somewhat perplexed when the leaders of the smart transit group that I joined said that the one solution we were not to suggest was to add more buses to the routes.

Still, I tried to slip the idea in by suggesting that rerouting empty buses to underserved areas or busy routes might ease the congestion and wait times while reducing the number of "not in service" buses on the roads.

Don't ignore simplest solutions

My ideas were not, strictly speaking, on the topic for the evening. Yet maybe that sums up the problem — technology has great promise to ease our lives and to bring people together in new and exciting ways, but too often the simplest and best solutions are the last to be considered.

Many users appreciate new technology such as being able to refill a Peggo transit card online, says Susan Huebert. 'But for someone standing outside in –40 C weather, the only really important factor is the frequency of the buses,' she says. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

I have no doubt that many people would appreciate the ideas that were already under consideration, such as being able to purchase transit tickets online or having better access to information about bus arrival times or transfer opportunities, but for someone standing outside in –40 C weather, the only really important factor is the frequency of the buses.

If the implementation of new technology can eventually increase the number of buses on Winnipeg streets, it might be worth the trouble. The same could apply to the other three proposal areas.

On one hand, Winnipeg needs to keep up with the digital world, and winning the Smart Cities competition would help greatly to bring the necessary technology to the city. Once it was in place, the technology could help to solve some of the other problems.

Winnipeg needs strong, insightful leadership that uses opportunities like this one.

On the other hand, the temptation might be to consider the problems solved once the technology is in place.

Even with accurate estimates of wait times, people will still need adequate bus service, especially in cold weather. They will still need bicycle paths, green spaces and all of the things that information technology cannot provide.

I hope that Winnipeg wins the Smart Cities Challenge but that the city's leaders realize that technology, despite the many benefits for individuals and society as a whole, has its own quirks and limitations.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Susan Huebert is a Winnipeg writer for children and adults, on topics ranging from science to current events and social justice.