Smart City Dreams: Evolving Smart Cities from Blueprints to Reality

At Highline Beta we believe that smart cities are the future, and even though it may not be evenly distributed yet, in many ways that future is taking shape now. That’s why, earlier this month we co-hosted our first ever smart cities event with Sidewalk Labs, Smart City Dreams: Evolving Smart Cities from Blueprints to Reality. Our goal? Since taking an active part in smart cities conversation and launching Safe x Connected Cities Accelerator with Aviva Canada, we felt there was value in bringing industry leaders together to provoke a discussion on how the blueprints, tests and pilots that take place in-market today will truly transform the smart cities of tomorrow.

While the term ‘smart city’ has been used for at least a decade, its definition makes for interesting conversations and debates. Our moderator Kevin McLaughlin of Voila Mobility kicked of the questions asking just that: Just what is a smart city exactly? 

Ben Yoskovitz, Founding Partner at Highline Beta, started the conversation off with a broad technical definition: it’s an urban project that leverages network connectivity. To narrow it further, Sidewalk Labs Associate Director Andrew Miller provided context based on what Sidewalk Labs and other smart city projects are aiming to do: “We’re figuring out what international best practices for urbanism are and implementing them. Smart cities are good, cities of the future are better.” 

But how do you use best practices in a way that anticipates social and technological trends to build a city of the future? This challenge came up as a key tension from many of the speakers who are trying to launch projects today in order to serve the current and future needs of a city. And that’s because, as Hamish Campbell of ride-share company Via pointed out, our benchmarks of what a good city looks like today are rapidly evolving: “We’re ingrained to believe you need to own a home. I don’t think later generations will feel that. The same goes for car ownership. It’s more of a cultural problem than anything else.”

Smart Cities event

That culture shift is going to play out sooner rather than later in mobility. If the urban citizens of the future are going to be less car-dependent how do we design cities for them? And how, in the age of rapidly evolving speed of technology, can our cities keep pace? While a range of innovative initiatives like improved bike infrastructure, public transit and more efficient use of ride-sharing, is being tested, they all require critically rethinking and redesigning our infrastructure to accommodate new modes of travel. As McLaughlin put it, “Cities were designed for cars relatively recently, and I don’t see a reason we couldn’t redesign them.”

Catherine Brown, VP of Marketing & Corporate Social Responsibility at Aviva Canada, shared her belief that addressing an urgent need or solving a real problem is the key to making pilots work and larger private-public implementations succeed, and a way to fast-track progress. “Understand our industry and environment as much as you can and solve a problem for us, and you’ll accelerate the (collaboration) process.”

Good examples of private-public collaboration help propel similar collaborative efforts forward. The King Street pilot process in Toronto, where the city restricted car traffic on a stretch of a major downtown street in favour of public transit. To study the pilot’s efficacy, measuring pylons were placed at each intersection to track vehicle movements. This data was then used by the city, which ultimately made the change permanent. So there is certainly precedent, even locally, for governments making use of “smart” technology to inform their decisions.

So what does this all mean for the future of smart cities? We need to experiment more widely. For an evolving conversation between citizens, governments and the private sector to make sense, we urgently need to move from talking to doing. If nothing is made, nothing gets rewarded. Ultimately, it’s through action that we can transform the cities of tomorrow.  

We want to thank everyone at Sidewalk Labs, our panelists, and everyone who attended for a great event. We’ll be sure to let you know about the next one!

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