Smart City’s Development: a New Democratic Perspective from Toronto



Nowadays, more and more urban experts are questioning the utopian future of smart, intelligent and data-driven cities. As reported by The New York Times editorial board, issues like the role of technology in everyday life, the influence of tech companies and the correct direction of public policy on this matter are certainly still open.

There are many approaches to consider when debating on how democratic a smart city can be. According to Bianca Wylier, senior fellow of the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), there are five approaches that can address smart city challenges starting from the Sidewalk Toronto experience:

  1. Open Procurement and Contracting
  2. Intensive Public Education and Consultation
  3. Civic Data Governance as a Government Responsibility
  4. Smart Cities as a Political issue, not a Technology Issue
  5. Agile Policy-making Process

First of all, the first approach says that it is necessary to speak to residents early and often about what they want and need. Secondly, public authorities may not proceed without public buy-in or may make a secretive deal with corporations involved in the project.

The first approach teaches us that many of these projects will be built and operated by the private sector for governments. As Mark Wilson, former chair of the board of Waterfront Toronto and current Waterfront Toronto digital strategy advisory panel member says, the democratic control of the processes can only be achieved with an educated public.

The second approach suggests that governments need to spend resources for awareness building around data and technology. It is necessary that people understand data and how it can be used. In Toronto, for example, urban innovators have decided to focus on urban issues such as mobility and housing. In Brazil, public authorities conducted an intensive public process to create the Brazilian Internet Bill of Rights, and Taiwan created expansive ways to consult on technology issues both online and in person.

The third one is about data management. In that sector, it is vital to understand that different type of data and context require different type of conservations around how the data might be used by government, how it might be commercialized, and how it might be made open, shared, or kept closed. There are a lot differences between personally identifiable information, aggregate and anonymized human behavioral data or environmental and geospatial data or infrastructural data. In this field, the European GDPR has been built to give individuals more power to define how their data is used.

Moving on to the fourth approach, it is clear that the smart city model has not been always a successful paradigm. Just think of the Songdo International Business District in South Korea, the Epcot Center in Florida and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. New approaches to technology management are needed to deal with the problem that smart cities are not only a technology issue but a political issue. For example, it is more and more important to use participatory models that engage residents in decision-making and data stewardship. Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, has instituted a set of policies to guarantee not only open technology systems as a procurement requirement, but also resident control of data and technology-driven civic participation. Francesca Bria, the chief technology officer for the city of Barcelona explains that the core issue is reaching a New Deal on data, based on a rights-based, people-centric framework.

Finally, the fifth approach, based on an agile policy-making process, explains that existing legislation is unsuitable in that situation because legal frameworks that govern data and technology were created prior to internet broadcasting, so it is crucial to update laws to protect privacy and security. But it is also important that changes happen incrementally to avoid bad legislation. So, agile policy creation is something all governments will need to start getting comfortable with.

For example, digital master plans to direct technology policy can support a city’s general strategic planning efforts. Software code (very different from traditional physical infrastructure) can be replicated and shared around the world and developing a model of ownership and licensing (something like Creative Commons licenses) would enable the sharing of technology under flexible terms. Last but not least, it is important to mention creating data standards to support shared digital infrastructure and interoperability and co-city protocols.

Coming back to the NYT article mentioned before, it is time for a new paradigm in internet and data management if we want to help technologists and policymakers to strive for secure elections, to reimagine our business models, to defend citizens and to protect us from extremists around the world.