IBI Group is a ‘technology driven design firm’; a foundation upon which the Toronto-based professional services company has been building since its founding in 1974. IBI consult in architecture, engineering, planning, landscape architecture, transportation, and technology, and is perhaps best known on UrbanToronto for its work on the Delta Hotel that opened in 2015.

CEO Scott Stewart presented the company’s ‘New Strategic Plan’ at the firm’s annual general meeting (AGM) on May 10. The firm’s goals, framed against the forecast of urbanization today—one of accelerated global migration to urban centres, coupled with technological advancement in design, analytics, and data—have adapted to the new development climate.

IBI Group, Smart Cities Sandbox, Smart Cities Platform, Toronto, Microsoft Members of the IBI Smart Cities Sandbox Team at the IBI AGM in Toronto, image via IBI Group

Bracing for the future, according to Stewart, calls for a new business model: one which will have both cities—the drivers of growth and national economies—and technology—the mechanisms underlying that growth—at its core. However, design still lies at the centre of IBI’s practice. ‘Not much has changed in this sense’, Stewart pointed out. The only difference, is that he forecasts a disruptive future ahead in the way that urban design and technology interact to make efficient and impactful urban environments. The task as far as IBI is concerned, is how to lead this driving force, not how to follow it.


A Four Part Plan 

As cities become hubs for accelerated urbanization and density, technology, data, and design become all the more significant in the ways urban life functions.  

IBI Group’s new Strategic Plan hinges on four streams ‘designed to use existing and new technologies to grow the core business as well as future-proof the firm through new business models, products and services’. Its Smart City Platform, its Asset Management Platform, its Water / Energy Optimizer, and its Urban Analytics services together combine to form what Stewart coined the Smart Cities Sandbox.

The Smart Cities Sandbox is a multi-partner project—the new focus of IBI’s business endeavours—that has brought in The Weather Network, Ontario Centres of Excellence, Slate Asset Management, Ellis Don, and Ontario Power to head up the firm’s new focus on Smart City development. The platform, powered by Microsoft, will in Stewart’s words, seek to ‘define the Cities of tomorrow by intricately combining design, technology, data, and planning expertise towards creating ‘smarter’ urban environments, and streamline the future of urban design in cities.

IBI Group, Smart Cities Sandbox, Smart Cities Platform, Toronto, Microsoft Smart Cities Platform: Defining the Cities of Tomorrow, image via IBI Group

The Smart Cities Platform

IBI’s ‘Smart City Platform’ builds on the firm’s existing portfolios and cloud-based SaaS (Software as a Service) products to offer ‘integrated solutions for clients’. By combining ‘big data’ and predictive data analytics technology, IBI plans to improve and enhance the decision making process of city clients, ‘from the residents to the Mayor’, when trying to address the needs of a given urban space.

The Platform is effectively a software system that features a range of applications specific to the services offered through its urban technologies. By aggregating data from different sources, results can then be visualized, analyzed, integrated, and engaged with using the software interface, web portals, and mobile apps that connect community members to the data.

For instance, traffic and transit management systems, solid waste and energy management, and environmental monitoring systems can be analyzed through data-collection software, and then tailored to the specific needs or varying usages of a particular area. A lot of the relevant data in question is already openly sourceable from City data networks. Open data on the weather, on hospitals, schools, parks, bike lanes, and traffic for example, can be aggregated and harnessed so usage can be fine tuned to the needs of that area’s residents.

IoT sensors (or ‘Internet of Things’ sensors) are physical objects that are or can be embedded with sensors that feed data into a central network. These allow software to detect, engage with, and exchange collected data within the given infrastructure. These can be installed in urban environments—on street cameras, water systems, to sense bin volumes, on traffic lights, parking spaces—and centrally monitored on the firm’s platform interface.

‘Connecting the pieces’ of data, of design, and of people’s urban lifestyles are increasingly focal to the project of creating tangible results in the fields of urban mobility and communications. Theoretically, these technologies can be translated to outfit a range of fields that aren’t exclusively city-oriented, or related to physical land use planning. Stewart projects the utility of these technologies on campuses or schools, neighbourhood communities, even in education and healthcare (outlined in separate IBI projects called ‘learning+’ and ‘healthcare+’).

IBI Group, Smart Cities Sandbox, Smart Cities Platform, Toronto, Microsoft The IBI Smart Cities Platform, image via IBI Group

Water / Energy Optimizer

One of the best examples of these kinds of technologies at work is IBI’s ‘Water / Energy Optimizer’, which has been operational in Toronto for the past two years and services over 4 million Toronto residents. The technology represents an ‘innovative approach to minimizing system-wide operational energy costs of existing water distribution assets in near real-time’.

The intelligent software is a tool that can directly control pumps and valves that feed water to certain parts of the city. Inputs, such as real-time weather information, energy tariff structures, and hydraulic constraints are fed into the central server, prompting it to change its system conditions to ‘maintain optimality’ in distribution. In 2016, the technology was shown to decrease water costs for Toronto by 10.1%. In more tangible terms, IBI report that over a six month period, 16 million kWh of energy are saved using this technology, translating to an approximate $1.5 million/year in cost savings based on kWh reduction alone.

Urban Analytics

The Urban Analytics stream will utilize emerging and future technologies to improve urban analysis. With new technologies in the form of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), for example, data and design can be used and effectively ‘tested’ in a given urban environment before it’s even developed. Urban data can be visualized, tried out, and manipulated so that solutions to potential problems can be addressed before they materialize in the real world.

By leveraging forecasted results, IBI’s urban analysis could serve to help clients build interactive dashboards allowing them to ‘streamline the processing of information to enhance decision making’.

Asset Management Platform

An ‘Asset Management Platform’ was also revealed as a driver in IBI’s strategy—allowing the firm to play ‘a more holistic role’ in clients’ assets. The platform will leverage ‘intelligent building information to better use space, and make data-driven, preventative maintenance decisions’.

IBI’s internal technologies are being harnessed and developed further to these ends, among the most futuristic being the IBI Bimbot—a robot that helps detect ‘clashes’ in a given design or plan. The bot grows through machine learning and AI, increasingly serving to analyze and detect potential errors in a given client’s mechanical, technical or architectural plans. The technology will then be able to notify and suggest solutions to the given error in near-real time, saving a client both time and money.


To many, the speed at which urban living seems to be accelerating towards mass data collection, machine learning, and surveillance, is somewhat of an alarming prospect. In the wake of a number of recent international scandals associated with data collection and sharing, big data and information sharing in urban environments will face a number of challenges as more questions are posed to the firms and governments unspooling plans for ‘smarter’ urban environments.

Yet the end goal as far as IBI is concerned at least, is for data, technology, and design to come together to make cities more livable, more sustainable, and more advanced; to create ‘truly integrated cities for people’. Above all, Smart Cities are learning platforms to give insight into how urban environments can be better, more efficient, and specifically oriented to the needs of its residents. Scott Stewart notes that residents’ privacy and security is central to this future, however, and only time will show us how these technologies unfurl.