A city is really just a collection of things: streets, buildings, people, services, wires, pipes, and laws. Those things are, to varying degrees, in communication with one another. The streets do not literally speak, but the various elements of a functioning city do work together to achieve positive outcomes.

The Internet of things literalizes this metaphor. It puts sensors in all sorts of places and devices, and those systems communicate and share data to produce interesting outcomes. The Intelligent Cities Summit, which was staged in Toronto this Tuesday and Wednesday, sought to understand how these technologies could be used to help the cause of urbanism.

“The resident is going to receive services in a more efficient way,” said Gilbert Sabat, the commissioner of service innovation, information, and technology for the Region of Peel. “That’s what smart cities do for you.”

Treating services as part of a unified system, Sabat argued, makes the provision of basics less of a challenge to citizens. To do that, he said the Region of Peel is “working to get out of the business of bits and bytes and hugging servers at night.”

Massing study of the 3C Waterfront site, image courtesy of 3C Lakeshore.

In that respect, the Internet of things challenges the way municipal and regional governments have traditionally approached technology and infrastructure. Moving from proprietary servers to big data in the cloud may have its benefits, but governments aren’t structured to work like technology firms.

“The procurement process was created for bridges and roads,” Sabat said, “not technology.”

If those procurement barriers can be overcome, a number of the summit’s participants said that cities would be able to make major steps forward.

“We use a myriad of technologies to ensure we're making the right decisions,” said Oshawa’s chief administrative officer, Jag Sharma. He noted that streamlined ways of interacting with municipal government had already been applied successfully to swimming pool permits. That kind of interaction, he hopes, will soon be broadened to other services.

“We’ve been redefining ourselves for the past two decades,” Sharma said. In that way, the intelligent city is not something that has appeared overnight; it is being built on a well-established foundation of municipal and regional infrastructure.

Cadillac Fairview has proposed a new office tower at 16 York Street south of Union Station, image, Cadillac Fairview

One of Sharma’s visions for Oshawa’s future involves a network of autonomous vehicle testing opportunities. This view was shared by Stuart Cowan, the chief scientist of the Smart Cities Council, who listed autonomous, electric, and shared fleets as his three key trends for the future of transit.

Cowan sought to assist cities in making the case for more smart technologies. “It’s almost like a FitBit for the city,” he said; it prompts policymakers to ask “how are we doing today?”

Open data can play an important part in answering that question. Tyler Sutton, the editor of Public Sector Digest noted that “open data, especially at the municipal level, is a newer practice.”

“It’s about building an ecosystem around data and making sure it’s used,” said Connie McCutcheon, the IT Open Data Project Lead for Niagara Region.

“There’s a misconception that you have to be an app developer to use open data,” she said. “You don’t.”

Kristina Verner, the director of intelligent communities for Waterfront Toronto noted that communities need to think more broadly about how they put this information to use: “there’s hackathon and app fatigue.”

In spite of these challenges, however, the conference’s speakers and attendees agreed that the Internet of things and big data still represented significant opportunities for municipal institutions.

“The real potential in the Internet of things is that you can connect all these things together,” said University of Calgary professor Dr. Steven Liang. That potential is largely untapped, but it could result in more interesting and inclusive cities.