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For an Intelligent, Excellent City

A truly future-oriented Toronto will build on its strengths and develop existing local expertise, schools and practices of advanced urban tech, which already understand how all the parts of a city must cooperate to sustainably produce maximum value and sustainable prosperity for citizens.

Cities have to provide necessary services, such as clean water, power, mobility, waste management and emergency services, efficiently and effectively 24/7. Toronto has been doing that for generations, providing the basis for one of the most exciting and dynamic cities in the world. With a long term commitment to quality, efficiency and efficacy, a city can build on generations of public sector experience to affordably provide reliably excellent conditions for its citizens. No grassroots citizen group has ever requested or demanded that a Smart City system be implemented in their city. Smart Cities are always presented to the public from the top down, as inevitable and necessary. But, insistent and self- assured as it is, this is only a marketing narrative.

There is an orthodoxy in town which confidently declares that the public sector is neither efficient nor innovative. Activists of the global financial sector target governments at all levels, through every available channel. They mobilize citizen opinion through extravagant marketing campaigns, and incentivise politicians to propagate their narrative of public administration “slowness” and “waste”. They press for the defunding of publicly administered institutions like hospitals, schools and transport until these fall into disrepair and neglect. Meanwhile they lobby to open up the same services to private “competition” from international players, the quality of public services declines, making the argument more convincing that the private sector can do it better. Smart Cities is just the latest packaging for this strategy to put municipalities at the mercy of the private sector. The principal objective is to deprecate democratic institutions and locally administered services and replace these with extractive profit-driven service economies beholden to the whims of global finance.

It has become almost counter-intuitive to claim that cities, or governments of any kind, can manage essential needs of citizens better than the private sector. But this is a narrative, not fact, as Mariana Mazzucato convincingly argues in “The Entrepreneurial State” that the public sector is the most innovative, taking risks on long term improvements and fundamental engineering, while the private sector wastefully piggybacks making short term gains on the visionary investments made by public institutions. Deep innovation takes the kind of long-term planning and investment that today’s private sector cannot justify with its imperative to regularly show profits for investors.

Uber, Airbnb, Deliveroo and the rest of the platform economy extracts value from deep innovations, and long-term investment in city affordances and culture that have been produced over decades of public spending. The city we’ve made is the real source of value. Global IT companies in the platform economy extract shareholder value from a strong base of civic institutions built through public investment. If platform resource sharing schemes, like shared bikes and rooms are needed to encounter shortfalls in mobility or accommodation options, they should be run by the municipality so that all the benefits, from fares to data acquisition, be recouped by the citizens, and data privacy issues maintained under democratic purview. While we’re at it, let’s have municipal broadband! Well-funded public services can provide excellent services to all citizens cheaper than the private sector, which, on the contrary, is motivated to provide excellent services only for those who can pay the most. A privately-run city will be a pay-as-you-go city. An absentee landlord city, a city for tourists and visitors but not for residents and citizens.

As has been seen repeatedly around the world, the most fundamental services such as health care or education are notoriously unprofitable. Once firmly in the hands of private actors, faced with low returns, essential services inevitably begin to be provided in tiers, with poor quality and extractive conditions for the majority and better quality for those who can pay. Invariably the privatisation plans need to be constrained or rolled back altogether, why go through the ordeal?

Instead of accepting a short-termist city of citizen value extraction, let us advocate for improving and investing in the expertise and knowhow that got us here. We want and deserve an excellent city, an intelligently run city, not a short-termist and extractive smart city. When we hear that the TTC cannot adapt to present needs because the workers are already overworked, the intelligent response is to hire more workers and to create better conditions for those workers, so that these experienced specialists can maximise and emancipate their expertise, and so that the next generation of city transport experts can be trained in an environment of innovative and careful, long-term improvement, specialized in local challenges and responsive to local needs. A new commitment to public services requires that citizens get more involved in how the city is run, but the result will be a more efficient, more intelligent, sustainably prosperous city which works for all of its citizens.

Companies can move on, cities can’t
Companies get to make short term plans, cities can’t
Companies win even when they fail, cities don’t
Companies can hedge their bets and play clients against each other, cities can’t
Companies can just disappear overnight, cities can’t