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Data has transformed how businesses do commerce and people connect globally, making data the most valuable asset in today’s economy. The data-driven economy presents a transformative opportunity for Canadian businesses to grow our cleantech innovation, advancing both our prosperity and environment.

Nowhere is this economic opportunity more obvious than in smart cities. The smart cities segment of the global cleantech market is currently worth $1.3 trillion and growing 16% per year. Canada aspires to achieve $20 billion in cleantech exports by 2025. This sustainability and prosperity goal is unattainable unless we create a national data strategy that includes a smart city strategy.

But smart cities are not just another infrastructure or even a regular clean-tech project. The smart city industry is underpinned by the mass scale collection of data from a myriad of sensors that drive functional efficiencies and enhancements. They are complex surveillance environments that redefine both public and private spaces; creating new urban, civic and political questions. That is why viable smart cities are designed and built by the government and its citizens in a democratic and mutually accountable way. And then a vendor (or groups of vendors) are chosen to provide technology solutions that perform to specifications set by the government.

Apart from economic development potential, data has many non-economic effects. It has already been used to undermine personal autonomy, create mental health issues, change the outcome of elections and enable anticompetitive practices.

Data governance is the most important public policy issue of our time. It is even more urgent as a policy challenge than climate change because abuse of data compromises the very democratic processes on which we rely to intelligently and effectively address challenges like climate change.

A national data strategy would address both the economic and non-economic effects of data and it would provide guidelines on creation, capture, protection, management, compliance, exploitation and monetization of data. It would also:

  1. Ensure that cross-border data and information flows serve the interests of Canada’s economy, security and sovereignty;
  2. Codify explicit treatment of competition in the data sections of free-trade agreements, including a right to competitive access to data flowing through large data platforms that have de facto utility status;
  3. Create adequate data residency, localization and routing laws that protect Canadians so that our privacy is protected when our data flows outside our borders;
  4. Include a smart city strategy that governs if, how and under what conditions data is collected and how it’s used; and,
  5. Support an accredited process to standards and norms that embed the ethical uses for data extraction and processing because data systems are rife with inequity and exploitation potential.

Governing data, both enabling its economic potential and managing its risks, has already become a top priority for global policymakers. The Canadian government must wake up and do its part to ensure that Canadians thrive in the data-driven society. It’s time to create a national data strategy that includes a smart city strategy.