Visions for smart, connected cities are gaining momentum as viable technologies emerge and policymakers, architects, and unlikely players open their minds to new approaches in city building. The incredible potential of IoT, open data, digital integrations, and machine learning offer countless new approaches to urban planning, city life, and community building. In many ways, Toronto is leading the conversation and welcoming innovation at the centre of its planning initiatives. As cities around the world attempt to integrate these technologies in ways that respect citizen privacy and enhance the experiences of every resident, Toronto is committing to major innovation projects that push boundaries and extend possibilities.
My personal interest in city building began two years ago. On a 6 month backpacking journey through Southeast Asia, I began to recognize the influence of place, space, and the built environment on my emotional state and interactions with others. Time and time again, I felt most comfortable, and even a sense of pride, in spaces that had a distinct design and made community connections possible and engagement visible. The sense of ownership and joy created by dynamic environments, creative expression, and teamwork seemed to extend to everyone who entered space - even those just passing through.
As I returned home to Toronto and discovered local coworking spaces and mixed-use buildings, my interest in the physical spaces and urban planning forces that impact us all only became more pronounced.
Toronto's Growing Influence
The current buzz around Alphabet’s smart city has driven many people to take notice of the city plans that impact their daily lives and begin to consider the implications of data-driven, privately-run enclaves in an urban centre. UPPlift: Toronto’s urban pilot program challenge is also elevating the conversation, asking community members to submit tech-enabled solutions to transform the existing infrastructure in the city. The nature of rapidly accelerating technologies means that new possibilities and innovations are constantly emerging to transform how we live, work, and play in the world and bringing our relationship with place and space to the forefront of the public consciousness. This unchartered territory comes with its own risks and rewards, though, and a new, more collaborative and conscientious approach to smart cities must be undertaken for success.
Key Approaches for Smart Cities
'City as platform' concepts have, thankfully, been rooted in a thoughtful approach to inclusion and sustainable development goals. As we forge ahead with new technology and collaborative approaches to city building, there are many careful considerations that must be made. What follows are three that ensure developments benefit the most people possible and create resilient cities that are not just smart, but brilliant for their (intended and unexpected) uses, neighbourhoods, and population segments.
The city is not a blank canvas. Approaching it as such is not only unrealistic but wasteful. When reimagining urban futures and integrating technology into daily city life, we need to leverage existing infrastructure to make it economically and ecologically sustainable. At all stages of development and decision-making, we must keep a lens on efficiency and long-term environmental impact. Population growth and concentration in cities means that systems must be resilient, adaptable, and efficient to be smart. As more and more projects and voices arise, strong focus must remain on solving existing problems, not just creating new solutions. Improving less aesthetic and less visible realities, such as resource consumption, traffic, and waste management, that are essential to a livable city must be at the top of the priorities list.
New models and technologies result in uncertain outcomes, creating space for diverging opinions and perspectives. Security and privacy concerns, as well as reinforced power imbalances, have been a big debate in many smart city conversations. People are raising concerns about access to information, risks associated with collecting and storing massive pools of data, consent, and the right to privacy in a democratic society. A meaningful debate helps to shine a light on the dark corners and potential downsides of tech integrations. Input and a reflective, open approach to account for all voices and concerns must be taken by the city to mitigate the potential for unforeseen and/or negative outcomes in this new era of city planning. Catalytic governance models, that unite stakeholders around conceptualizing plausible outcomes, must be used to ensure the city is being built, transformed, and co-created with those who will live in and define the spaces every day.
Beyond the physical reality of buildings, city plans and high tech integrations cannot ignore what already works in a neighbourhood. There are no shortcuts or perfect science when it comes to city life, so developing mindful and tailored solutions for different areas, even within a single city, are essential. Ignoring or striving to transform the multiculturalism, diverse income levels, and most recognizable qualities of an area through non-inclusive, inaccessible, or otherwise unexamined technology will not serve to enhance, but only degrade and mutate the city. Culture is essential, so keeping sight of how progress will impact interactions, existing populations, and relations with the built environment itself should be carefully taken into consideration when determining if plans are viable.
As Toronto gains recognition as a hub for technology and an epicentre for innovation, ensuring our city reflects the activity, passion, and diversity of its residents is essential. Citizen input and action are easier and more important than ever before. Dream up your ideal city and share your key considerations for urban planning innovations that will have a true, tangible, and direct impact on all residents.