The Windsor Research Project: Are we Smart Enough?

A couple of weeks ago, the Government of Canada announced the winners of our country’s first Smart Cities Challenge. Windsor-Essex did have a proposal that unfortunately didn’t make it through the initial stages of the challenges. I was apart of that process, a lot of hard work went into it and the idea was there, but it missed a few marks. Having taken time to read the four winning proposals, I want to reflect on that process and what the future might hold.

A Vision for Our Future?

When looking at our region, what is the vision that ties us together? Although the City and County are great partners on a number of issues and services there are drastic differences in income, accessibility, standards of living and priorities both perceived and actual. One of the common elements of the successful smart cities proposals was a vision for the communities/regions that resonated across and throughout with demonstrated buy-in.

These were visions and strategies were not only endorsed by councils, supported by cross sector partnership, and grounded in significant in-progress work; they established strategic partnerships in their respective communities that saw significant investment prior to the challenges launching. Montreal, the $50 million prize winner has a single website tracking 70+ smart initiatives across their City, separate from the Smart City Challenge. To maintain a website, to share community information, to have a bilingual blog are not actions beyond us and they demonstrate a commitment to process.

Between Jan 2017 and the announcement of winning communities the City of Guelph had “smart initiatives” on their council agenda (yes I did review all of the agendas) at total of 13 times. Six mentions were before the challenge launched as “smart initiatives” big and small were presented or reported to Council. During the initial and final rounds of the challenge a total of 7 presentations occurred on the specific bid just to the City Council, not including the regional Council who was also a partner. To me this shows a level of political support and vision that was lacking locally. When they were selected as a finalist in same category as Windsor-Essex bid, Guelph’s council voted to invested $250,000 on top of the $250,000 that was awarded for planning by the Government of Canada. If we were to survey the new councils that are in place across our region, how many would have knowledge of Smart Cities?

For our region, I don’t know what our priority is? From an economic development standpoint “mobility” has emerged. The trouble is, the priorities of boardrooms are quite often very different from the priorities living room. Divisive issues have probably harmed the ability to rapidly unify as region and unwind the numerous interconnected systems of a Smart City, as they likely would require accepting a status quo that may be unacceptable to some.

This isn’t to say that we can’t disagree on issues. Debate and compromise is a good thing and should be encouraged as it can help build consensus for our regions’ future. I would argue conversations around what our priorities are in this space haven’t occurred. The lack of vision allows politicians to update strategic plans then champion quick wins that contradict them; to the toxicity of social media poisoning discourse in our region; to small changes quietly occurring in some of the outlying suburban communities have the potential for big impacts; to me this show a region and communities within it that are more and more in-ward looking and lacking a unified voice.

If we are the “mobile region”, as some propose, how do we communicate the importance of this vision to the community and how do we ensure the equity plays a role in who benefits from this new mobility. An autonomous bus to bring nurses and software engineers to Detroit for work sounds cool. The question has to be asked, why are we subsidizing people who can afford and choose to work in another country when 56% of kids in downtown Windsor are living in low income?

Until there is a unified vision and a clear set of priorities that unwinds these complex system issues in manner that can be explained to an outsider easily, we are starting any Smart City proposal behind other communities.

Need to Engage

Put simply the process can’t be top down and the last round missed the mark. All of the winning communities engaged thousands of their residents, through numerous channels from the beginning. Guelph’s bid incorporated over a dozen community proposals into their final submission, and they did so by cutting ideas submitted by the municipality and agencies. Call me cynical but do I see institutionally championed projects getting cut locally for residential ideas, no probably not.

I would argue that engagement hasn’t been a strong suit for our community. Our region tends to lean on online surveys (of which I have been apart of many) available only in English for two week time and/or a poorly attended community town hall to engage the public. Nunavut’s proposal engaged communities across their territory in dozens of communities in traditional languages even publishing their final submission in Inuktitut. Are we willing to do the hard work and go to where people are, and see what they actually need? We might be trying to become a mobility powerhouse but how does that impact the 1 in 2 children in West Windsor living in low income? Has anyone bothered to ask them or their parents what they need? Do they need an autonomous bus or would they rather have the skills and training to have a job building and maintaining the bus? Do we have the right people around the table at the right time, because we missed this mark last time.

Montreal’s Smart City “neighbourhood food and mobility” proposal built on a decade of work and engagement from United Way/Centraide Greater Montreal in creating neighbourhood councils across their region. The councils were stress testers for Smart City ideas and launching pad for deep community engagement. These councils and their neighbourhood resident members will play roles implementation of their successful $50 million proposal.

A last minute, crash engagement process won’t work. Successful applications had months of engagement across their communities; purchased billboards and radio ads; held dozens of publicly held meetings, created innovative engagement methods. They debated priorities and took that feedback to prioritize the proposals. What they did was the hard work of authentically listening to the people in their community and tailoring their proposals to those needs. Something we need to do more of.

Who Owns the “Smart City”

Data has been called the oil of the 21st century. a more apt description comes from Jim Balsille describing it as plutonium, a source of great power, that can both slowly and rapidly kill you. Given this era of fake news, trust in institutions being at or nearing all time lows and talk of breaking up social media/internet giants via Anti-Trust tools. Where is the community conversation on data and who owns the “Smart City”?

The easy answer is to say that the municipality will look after it, but is it that easy? At its core, the Smart City process brings together municipalities and companies together in partnership. In reality, my interpretation is that it is a tool to incentive business to invest, experimentation and eventual monetization of the infrastructure investments they are making. The Canadian Smart City darling of Sidewalk Labs is starting to face its own backlash over the scope of its development and levels of data control and monitoring that it is proposing.

Given the unique challenges of being a border city and the differing standards around data, the potential risks that come from smart technology and data being shared are very real. From program data ending up in a cloud on the wrong side of the border and being searchable under the Patriot Act and various successors; to facial recognition technology being used to target you for ads on storefronts while “keeping an eye” on crime; to a scooters tracking your movements and selling information about where you go and when; Windsor diversity is call one of its great strength, but with emerging evidence around bias baked into AI that may be sorting and/or analyzing the Smart City data how are we ensuring that all members of our community are being treated fairly? To take this discussion to an extreme conclusion, we only need to look at what is happening in China right now. Between an advanced surveillance state and an implementation of a social credit system, peoples lives are being determined by big brother through an algorithm in a black box.

The opportunity that was missed was for a debate to occur around data governance and a framework developed after we missed out on the last round. A year of conversations could have occurred, which to my knowledge have not. If they haven’t then we have stagnated over a year in a field that is evolving more rapidly than people can imagine.

If these conversations are/have occurred then it is time to bring it into the light and to share them with the community. There is massive social benefit to better understanding how our data is being used and it is potentially going to be used locally. If a framework has been developed than community agencies and organizations should begin adopting its standards and implementing proper usage.

Looking Ahead

Based on the previously announced plans another round of Smart City applications should be coming (likely dependent on the election outcome). I would argue that steps should be taken now to prepare but these shouldn’t be closed door meetings. There is time now to democratize this process, build a vision for what a Smart Windsor-Essex could look like and get buy-in from the community on what that vision means for the day to day lives of residents in our community. If we aren’t willing to do that, then we are just chasing dollars, and I fear that future outcomes won’t be much different than our past outcomes.

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