The following is a recap of one of the 11 city tours that made up ULI Toronto’s Symposium 2018. On November 7th, hundreds of urban professionals from the region and beyond came together to explore the leading edges of North America’s fastest growing metropolis, exposing the contemporary tensions and innovative approaches to building a global city region.
The need to balance how we build cities, use data and share in its value creation and benefits lies at the intersection of digital technology and urban development. This was the theme of the ULI Toronto Symposium 2018 Digital City Building tour, which examined how cities collect and protect data while creating new opportunities for government and industry to build better, smarter cities.
The tour featured global and local city builders who are seeking to leverage the digital opportunities associated with big urban data – and the civic stewards of this increasingly valuable resource.
Technology for technology’s sake, or data for data’s sake, is worthless. Rather, it is about using data to understand a problem and make informed decisions, and technology to deliver a solution. George Carras (CEO, R-Labs) started the day by advising the audience not to fall in love with a technology, as it will change. Instead, Carras says it’s important to be passionate about solving a problem. Ron Gordon, Senior Advisor, City Digitization, Cisco Canada, ended the day by affirming that it was incorrect to begin with the technology and then try to find a way to use it. Thus, technology is not the thing that we should be working towards but is an enabler to help get there.
Attempts to understand and address an urban issue should also be user-focused and inclusive. Ann-Marie Croce (Data Research Associate, Toronto Civic Innovation Office) and her team combine data, empathy and human-centred design in their work to better understand residents and make decisions. Both Croce and Jessica Rayes, Communications and Open Data Publishing Lead, Toronto Open Data, made “personas” to help them distinguish what would be valuable to different users. Rayes uses this data to prioritize datasets with the highest value. But simply releasing data isn’t good enough, she says, which is why her goal is to help facilitate analysis through education and to champion data-driven decision making in the city.
Data and technology were used to help William MacGowan, Director, Digital Buildings, Cisco, design the Cisco Toronto Innovation Centre in a way that would enhance the “experience” of the space and thus the happiness of the centre’s employees and visitors.
Collaboration and co-creation between government, private business, and residents was also considered crucial. Kristina Verner, VP of Innovation, Sustainability and Prosperity, Waterfront Toronto, said that the Quayside team recognized that it would not be good for anyone if people distanced themselves from the neighbourhood for fear of having their privacy breached. During a separate panel, Josh Sirefman, Head of Development, Sidewalk Labs, also offered assurance by noting that the team was working with governance structures and thinking holistically about the Quayside project.
Finally, experimentation and prototyping were discussed as ways to find solutions for complex urban problems. It is hard for governments to fail without it being a PR disaster, said both John Brodhead, Director of Policy and Strategy, Sidewalk Labs, and Nicola Spunt, Director of Culture and Content at Partisans Architects. Private companies’ ability to protype and iterate, and their freedom to learn from failure, make them good partners for city building. Brodhead’s worry, however, is that people’s fear of failure would get in the way of success. What’s hopeful is that the Toronto Civic Innovation Office is nurturing a culture of innovation within the city, employing a lean and agile approach, and using data to back up decisions when they challenge conventional norms.
Toronto is at the global frontier of digital technology and urbanism. If we don’t get things right here it will not bode well for other smart cities or for the future of Toronto. However, there is still a lot of iterating that needs to take place, and overall both the speakers and participants of the tour appeared optimistic about the future.