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Technology has collided with democracy in Canada, outpacing the ability of our cities to put strong policy and governance around it. The current smart city approach in Canada lacks a systematic emphasis on open architecture, interoperability, and on protecting the value of public data. As cities increasingly deploy connected, data-gathering infrastructure, they risk outsourcing the public domain to large vendors, selling closed systems that encroach on public control of that infrastructure and the data it generates.

The risk is not that we’ll stop having local elections. Rather, it’s that we’ll see a slow erosion of the capacity, effectiveness and moral authority of our cities to fulfil the mandate we’ve given them, while inserting private sector actors as an ungovernable layer within city operations.

To avoid this future, we need to build and maintain aspects of the digital infrastructure for smart cities in the public interest. We can protect city institutions, create new data-driven forms of economic development, drive government innovation and nurture a vibrant Canadian technology ecosystem, all with a city-first approach:

First, the technology that underpins smart cities must be open, interoperable and not dominated by any one actor. Code is law, and the development of digital architecture, standards and protocols cannot be left to technologists alone. The public sector must lead collaborations with the private sector and civil society to build and maintain digital public infrastructure for smart cities. Doing so will drive government innovation and unlock new forms of economic, social and democratic good for Canada.

Second, we need to fill the governance vacuum in which smart cities are currently taking shape. Local councils and public servants must be able to exercise real control and oversight over complex technology projects, up to and including firing vendors. Regulatory modernization is also required: while we know what technology can do, we’re overdue for many decisions about what it should do in cities. Then we must hardcode those guardrails into our policy and regulations locally, provincially and federally.

Third, the value of public data must stay in public hands. With the falling costs of sensors and network access, there will soon be an explosion in the amount of data generated by public infrastructure, including about how you and I move through public spaces. That data has almost incalculable value to the private sector. While there is not yet consensus on if or how we could safely harness that in the public interest, we must ensure other actors don’t scoop it out from under our feet as our public institutions figure that out.

Finally, we need sustained investments in the digital and cultural transformation of Canada’s cities. We can’t layer technology on top of old process and expect big results. Buying fancy new tech is the easy part -- what’s hard is nurturing within city institutions what Alex Osterwalder calls the “tools, processes, rituals and incentives” for innovation to thrive. We often underestimate how much work is required for government transformation. The scale of this challenge requires equivalent investment and attention.

Our cities are the front lines and most vulnerable order of Canada’s democracy. The moment we are in is urgent, as Canada’s cities seek to evolve to meet the many challenges of the coming century. A city-first approach will ensure Canada’s cities emerge stronger, not weaker, from this “smart city” moment.