No single company should have a monopoly on building smart cities, tech entrepreneur says

If a smart city's infrastructure is built by a single corporation, it may end up being like like a technological walled garden, which could harm collaboration and innovation, says Kurtis McBride.

If a smart city is like an operating system, it should be open source

Part of building smart city infrastructure is looking at how cities understand and manage the flow of traffic. (Michelle Parise)

This story was originally published on April 26, 2019.

Toronto's waterfront is the site of a 12-acre smart city project called Quayside. The proposed futuristic neighbourhood is the result of a partnership with Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs — Google's sister company.

Kurtis McBride is an active player in building smart city infrastructure.

He's the co-founder and CEO of Miovision, based in Waterloo, Ontario. Miovision helps cities and the private companies that service cities understand and manage the flow of traffic.

McBride also sits on Waterfront Toronto's digital strategy advisory panel. He's looked closely at the partnership with Sidewalk Labs and has voiced some concerns.

He believes Quayside is kind of a microcosm for an important national conversation we need to have about data governance.

Here's part of his conversation with Spark host Nora Young.

We've heard a lot of conversation about the smart city: about what happens to the data, who can access the data. But you're also talking about who controls the source code. Can you explain?

While there are certainly going to be private companies and investors who took risks who are going to want to maintain some level of ownership over their source code, there's a more fundamental layer of this, which is how do we ensure that information that was generated in the public domain, and is paid for by public infrastructure, is accessible to everyone. There's a layer of the smart city that I think should be maintained in the public interest. And I think that source code that sits on top of all this stuff needs to be open source.

So when we're talking about that layer are we in some ways thinking about it as the equivalent of an operating system for computers and for things that work with those computers — except it's kind of an operating system for the city?

Absolutely. An operating system is a good analogy. I think another analogy that we've used to describe this is, for those old enough to remember, the America Online CDs that used to come in the mail. There was a time before the internet we know today where you would log into the internet and in effect, you'd log into America Online and you had curated content. It's the butt of jokes at parties now, but at the time that was sort of how we thought of the internet. It's a good analogy to describe this moment where we could end up in a world where that high level protocol data exchange is a monolith owned by one party. Or we could end up in a world where it's more like the internet — where it's distributed and standards based. My personal view is that's a better outcome that we should be striving for.

So if it's not Alphabet or Cisco or IBM that's building this layer, who builds this open source layer?

Yeah it's a great question. Doing it in a not-for-profit vehicle that's really going to work very hard to be neutral and non-partisan, that's one model to try to bring this to life. Innovation is messy. We usually have the luxury of doing innovation on a whiteboard behind a closed door where we're allowed to make mistakes. In this instance we're trying to do innovation in public. I think we have to be really honest and transparent with everyone's intentions and with the idea that we're going to get this wrong. We have to mitigate the impact of getting it wrong, but we're going to get it wrong, and commit ourselves to that and create a safe place for people to come together to work on this stuff.

Do you think that this is something that should be tackled on a city-by-city level or is this something that needs to be more of an international kind of conversation?

I definitely think that we need to be thinking about this broader than just the twelve acre project at Quayside. How broad? The more broadly you think about it, the more stakeholders you have to include in the conversation. So at a minimum, I think that approaching this with a national strategy around public data governance is the right move. In the grand scheme of things Canada's a small place and I think it's a manageable set of stakeholders. In Canada, we have an international brand of trust. When it comes to data governance, that needs to be done in the public good. I think Canada's in a really good position to be taken seriously on the global stage.

In practical terms, what would it mean potentially for smart city companies like yours if they're working with a kind of proprietary source code layer? What would be some of the challenges of doing that as opposed to being in a more open source model?

I mean in technology, to maybe draw a parallel to real estate, you either pay rent or you collect rent. You think about an app store, for example, on a mobile phone. Whoever runs the app store gets to charge a percentage of the revenue that's generated in the app store. So I think if you end up in a situation where a single private entity controls that fundamental digital layer on which our cities are built, then all of the other vendors in that ecosystem, and ultimately the customers, ultimately that flows down to the citizens who will essentially be paying rent to operate on top of that fundamental layer.

If you maintain this as more of an open source approach then the idea is that fundamental digital layer can be a 'commons' kind of approach. It can be maintained in the public good and that will ensure more freedom to operate, and ultimately keep the cost under control as well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click the listen button above to hear the full conversation.


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