Making Canada's capital a 'smart city'

A conference today asks what Ottawa and Gatineau need to do to be wired and ready for a world of "smart" garbage cans and sensors feeding back reams of data.

How can municipalities use the technology at residents' fingertips to make life easier?

'Ten years ago, what you were able to do with your flip phone and what you're able to do with your phone today are like night and day, and could you have predicted that 10 years ago?' asks the City of Ottawa's John Smit. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

A number of civic, academic and business leaders will gather today to envision how Ottawa and Gatineau can become "smart cities" of the future.

Transit riders can already track when buses will arrive and drivers can add money to parking meters via their phones.

Driverless cars could be tested on the streets of Kanata this summer.

How do you position yourself to take advantage of the new opportunities that are coming through the interconnections?- John Smit, City of Ottawa

But things are moving quickly.

Data analytics, cybersecurity and the internet of things are transforming business, and cities are grappling with how to use those interconnections to help their residents, according to John Smit, acting director of economic development for the City of Ottawa.

Smit will be speaking at the conference put on by Library and Archives Canada and the University of Ottawa. The mayor of Gatineau and CEO of the National Capital Commission, as well as researchers and business executives, will all weigh in on what the future could look like.

"Ten years ago what you were able to do with your flip phone and what you're able to do with your phone today are like night and day, and could you have predicted that 10 years ago?" Smit said.

Sensors and 'smart' devices

In the same way microwaves were a new convenience a generation ago, connected technologies should make life easier for people, said Campbell Patterson, a Kingston-based consultant who will also speak at Monday's event.

Patterson sees a future where technology allows people to receive health care, education, and do work without leaving home, which will mean less wear and tear on roads and fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Smart technologies are already allowing cities to gather data to manage everything from garbage, to water, to traffic, and help them save money and time, he said.

For instance, in Barcelona, Spain, the municipality has sensors in garbage bins so that trucks only empty them when needed, he said. 

"The prediction is there will be 50 billion sensors deployed [worldwide] by 2020," said Patterson.

For instance, autonomous vehicles could lead cities to install sensors on roads, Smit suggested.

Broadband is this century's railway: consultant

But in such an interconnected world, Patterson said a city that doesn't invest in broadband service stands to leave its residents and businesses behind.

"A municipality needs to be thinking about equitable access to the internet, and broadband infrastructure to support that, in the same way they think about investments in roads, water and electricity systems, that these are fundamental to the well-being of the community," he said.

And municipalities shouldn't leave it up to private telecommunications companies to beef up networks when they see fit, Patterson said.

"As long as downtown Toronto has better connectivity than everyone else, then the people who live there have a competitive advantage over everyone else," he said.

At the City of Ottawa, Smit knows consistent broadband access for everyone is one piece of the puzzle.

Staff are figuring out where to focus the municipality's efforts to make Ottawa a "smart city," and how to tie that in with the steps being taken by Hydro Ottawa and the economic development agency Invest Ottawa.

That overarching strategy is expected to be presented to councillors this spring or summer, Smit said.