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SAP hosted Smart Cities Forum at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto on February 10, bringing public sector leaders together in an exchange of ideas and shared digital transformation experiences.

While one could argue cities became ‘smart’ the moment the first automatic traffic lights were switched on in Houston, Texas in 1922, digital hyper-connectivity and the pervasiveness of data have loaded the term ‘smart city’ with the considerable gravitas it carries today.

Urbanization and technology have become closely interrelated, to the point where technology now directly influences where and how urbanization happens. In 2014, India’s prime minister, upon announcing plans to build 100 smart cities, said cities used to be built on riverbanks, are now built along highways, and in future will be built around the availability of optical fibre networks.

In the end, it won’t matter if we call them smart cities, future cities, sharing cities, or something else, but the driving force behind the idea is that need for continued digital innovation to the meet the demands of rapidly growing, increasingly complex urban environments.

With a term like ‘smart city’, it’s easy to be carried away by glamorous idealisms of what that might mean. The truth is, however, that a lot of the real execution happening under the tag today involves the use of digital technology to streamline the essentials of urban living for ever-growing populations. Clean drinking water, efficient sewage systems, road traffic and logistical systems, fire and flood control. Smart cities is ultimately about meeting citizen’s fundamental needs in new, innovative ways, such as using data feeds from vast networks of millions of sensors.

Like previous miracles of engineering – modern plumbing, electrical distribution, and so on - allowed us to come together as civilizations of millions of people, digital is enabling us to continue along that path of managing the even more intense levels of urbanization ahead of us. It’s projected that 75% of the earth’s population will be living in urban environments by 2050. That’s 7.5 billion people, compared with the 55% (around 3.8 billion people) today. In my mind, that makes it a necessity to use data and digital technology as the foundation for rethinking how we run cities.

Smart city means different things to different cities

For government leaders and city planners, the idea of smart cities is very much ‘what you make it’. It’s highly contextual in terms of how devices and data can help a city deal with unique challenges. For Buenos Aires, which suffered flooding that claimed 101 lives in 2013, a priority was creating a network of sensors that measure the direction and speed of water flowing through the city, identifying areas that need attention in real time. It’s telling that in 2014 the city went flood free, while neighbouring areas got soaked. Here we see how the smart city mindset brings simple, contextual solutions to serious problems.

Listening to public sector speakers at Smart Cities Forum, there was plenty to suggest North American cities are equally committed to investing in smart city infrastructure.  City of Toronto’s Fazal Husain has a vision of the city’s future where the need to build and maintain infrastructure is reduced, replaced by an increased reliance on connectedness and data. He imagines digital crowd-based discussions broadening the scale at which Torontonians interact with each other, where events that now only impact 10 people will be weighed in on by thousands.

Shawn Slack, CIO of City of Mississauga (a city of more than 800,000 near Toronto), acknowledged that plans around using data to become more responsive to citizen safety and efficiency led to the city’s almost accidental recognition as a smart city. Since then, it has fully converted to an LED traffic light system and has a flood sensor network that notifies crews of emergencies in real-time.

Shawn said the city’s future depends on achieving complete situational awareness, removing the need to do things on a granular level. Doing that takes a long-term plan for putting data analysis and connected infrastructure to action.

Getting citizens on board with smart city innovation

Speaking along similar lines, Stephen Goldsmith, the former Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, explained why to him smart city means responsive city. ‘Smartness’ is measured by how effectively it can anticipate and solve problems before they occur, as well as how quickly it can mobilize to fix things that do go wrong.

During his time working for Michael Bloomberg in New York, his office made huge strides in enabling public service agencies to handle assignments much more efficiently, using predictive analytics to improve by 1000% the accuracy of responses to fire emergencies. He said it was about being a lot smarter with the deployment of limited public resources, which is where data analysis comes in.

On the point of limited public resources, there are of course challenges in communicating the benefits of smart city investment to tax-paying citizens. Hardik Bhatt, CIO of State of Illinois, said bureaucracy and procurement barriers often mean technology has become obsolete by the time it’s implemented into city infrastructure. His way of tackling that is getting ahead of the curve; leapfrogging where possible to go from, for example, mainframe to cloud, where the impact is obvious and profound to citizens. And for Anthony Iannucci, CIO of Toronto Transit Commission, it’s about making the long road to modernization a business-wide transformation project with tangible returns, rather than a series of isolated technology projects.

It’s that forward-thinking mentality and willingness to innovate that will inspire the cities of the future, where life as a human being in a densely populated environment will be safer, easier and more enjoyable than could have been imagined in 1922 when those first Houston traffic lights switched to green.