Canadian Consulting Engineer

Smart Solutions

March 27, 2019
By Bruno Peters, P.Eng.

Introducing software and hardware systems to connect city operations and empower citizens takes small steps, collaboration and a foundation of trust.

(this article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer)

For decades, cities have been successfully leveraging technology for the benefit of their operations and their residents. With the more recent advancements in analytics and artificial intelligence, cities now have the potential to transform how we understand urban environments, as well as how we build and operate them.

Traditionally, cities—much like large institutions—have established planning and operating departments, such as water, waste water, transportation, and solid waste management, to name a few. Each of these departments has its own clear operational objectives and budgets to operate within. As new technologies have become more readily available, largely delivered by the private sector through a combination of hardware and software systems, departments have begun to leverage these for the benefit of their operations. 

Water SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) and traffic signal systems are two commonly known examples of technology that improves safety and efficiency in city operations.

The City of Toronto, for example, uses BlueIQ, a large-scale intelligent water transmission control system, to effectively minimize water pumping energy costs while ensuring consistent service delivery standards. Over a period of six months, 16 million kWh of energy was saved at a projected energy cost savings in the order of $1.5 million/year.

The only limitation has been that these systems often operate independently of, and without the data and information systems from, the other departments.

‘Smart City’ is a very popular term used today to broadly describe the ability of major cities to leverage data and connected technologies for the benefit of their residents. Private sector companies, including IBI Group, are building software systems such as the Smart City Platform that remove the barriers between departments by integrating data from various public sector departments and agencies and leveraging open data, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to drive better results.

Three of the top factors for the successful implementation of smart city software systems include:

  1. Starting small and growing the capabilities beginning with the best use cases;
  2. Breaking down silos through interdepartmental collaboration; and
  3. Maintaining the privacy and trust of local residents.


Start small

Starting small means focusing on one or two specific departmental issues that are easy to quantify and explain. System developers must work collaboratively with department operations to ensure they understand the complexities of their function(s). This is typically done by focusing on one or two use cases to better understand how data from existing systems and related operations can influence operational decisions. Understanding the operations will allow for complex data sets to be layered into the platform through the use of analytics. 

Operations and development teams might be surprised by what the data is showing at the outset, but through collaboration and an agile approach, a better understanding of the data can be achieved and adjustments can be made or new data be added to drive more value from the system. This typically will require working through some conversations that dig deeper into the operational reasons why “we have always done it this way.”

Starting small also means that existing proven systems are not intended to be replaced, but rather they are to be complemented in order to drive more value for the operation and residents. The key is to build upon the proven systems already in place.


Interdepartmental collaboration

Breaking down silos between departments and agencies seems like a logical thing to do, however changing decades of process and operating budget silos can be challenging. We have found through developing smart city strategies as well as Smart City Platform implementation work, that it is critical to find a champion who can be the bridge between operations and senior leadership. Most departments understand the benefits of the smart city approach but are unable to find a way to make the funding work.

Typically, one department will have to take a larger risk to demonstrate the benefits and through senior leadership can unlock additional funding that in the long run will reduce costs for the organization while improving outcomes for residents.

Many cities now have smart city departments or departments of innovation who are mandated to help with this process. Starting with one departmental champion who can understand the goals and outcomes that the City is trying to achieve, allows for measured results to be shown. Additional champions from other departments can be brought into the initiative to build on the previous successes and grow the smart city strategy for the City.

In order to move through this continuum, it is important to work with City staff to understand and address the change management required. This means staying close to the operation, helping with change management strategies, maintaining ongoing dialogue, and also being agile enough to address and adapt to new challenges.


Maintaining privacy and trust

In today’s smart cities, we have the benefit of being able to leverage data from many new sources that previously have not existed. The Internet of Things is allowing for the rapid deployment of low cost sensors to track environmental data, traffic, and people movement, just to name a few.

Cities have also deployed systems for better engagement with their citizens and to track complaints or operational challenges, such as potholes, safety and graffiti.

While these data sets can be extremely useful for smart city platforms, analytics and city operations, we need to be extremely diligent on how privacy is maintained.

There are federal and regional regulations that govern privacy and confidentiality including data collection, protection, use and disclosure. It is critical that these regulations are followed, starting with initial and ongoing privacy impact assessments as projects evolve, including triggering of assessments as new data sources are brought in.

Cities should have a process established to identify the need for and manage these assessments. It is also important to maintain communication and dialogue with residents to ensure that you are establishing and maintaining trust, in addition to meeting the regulatory obligations.


Realizing the vision

We are now in an age of information and technology that can improve our lives beyond the traditional approach of building large-scale infrastructure projects. Our cities can have smart infrastructure and operations that benefit residents and have a positive impact on our environments. If we approach the opportunity in a measured way that is collaborative and respectful, our smart city solutions can realize the vision that our residents are setting for cities.


Bruno Peters, P.Eng., is IBI Group Smart Cities Task Force Lead & Deputy Regional Director, Canada West.


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories