Want a smart city without a corporate master? There isn’t an app for that – yet

ANALYSIS: The Open City Network is a fledgling non-profit with a simple mission to help create smart-city technologies that are publicly owned and based on open standards
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Dec 11, 2019
Earlier this fall, Waterfront Toronto opted not to allow Sidewalk Labs to expand into the city’s Port Lands. (Andrew Lahodynskyj/CP)

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The glittering “smart city” vision of Sidewalk Labs in Toronto crashed to earth earlier this fall when Waterfront Toronto (the provincial agency responsible for redeveloping the city’s Port Lands) cut the Google-affiliated company’s sprawling vision down to size. Many critics were relieved that the potential for a powerful private corporation to build and operate a digital-surveillance apparatus had been minimized, if not eliminated. But the smaller Quayside project won’t be the last time a city in Ontario has to grapple with the problem posed by an ever-digitizing world.

Cities already collect and generate enormous amounts of digital data, and that volume is only going to grow with the proliferation of cheap sensors and faster networks. So who will cities and towns — especially those without the resources of Canada’s largest municipality — turn to if their only option for managing increasingly complex civic data is massive global corporations?

Enter the Open City Network, a Kitchener-based non-profit that’s matching up Canadian IT and communications companies with municipal leaders. OCN wants smart-city infrastructure to be publicly owned and based on open standards — and not just the province of companies that make their living collecting vast amounts of personal data.

“Quayside raised issues of national importance, and there was a sense of frustration that there was no other way to approach this work. How might we organize to solve this challenge elsewhere across Canada, outside the scope of that project?” asks Andy Best, OCN’s executive director.

“This infrastructure is going to be where we embed the answers to a very long list of public-policy challenges that we don’t have answers to yet,” says Best. “What kind of information should we be generating off people in cities as they walk down the street? This has privacy implications; this has governance implications; this has implications for economic development, innovation policy, digital justice, and inclusion.”

That, in a nutshell, was the fundamental problem that Sidewalk Toronto was never able to address to the satisfaction of its critics. And Open City’s opposition to the Google-led version of corporately owned smart cities isn’t just implied: it released a short document outlining its argument for public digital infrastructure earlier this month, and Sidewalk’s sprawling plan for the city’s Port Lands is explicitly called out.

“It would have outsourced critical functions of government to Sidewalk Labs,” the document states. “Once you embed that level of private interest into the lifeblood of a public sector organization, it would never come out.”

The alternative, says Best, is for cities to own and manage their own data using their own digital infrastructure. To help find and develop standards and protocols — as they don't really exist at this point — Open City held a “discovery day” in late November to bring together people from the private sector, government, and other NGOs to start the hard work of building a system of standards that everyone can agree to use going forward.

Best acknowledges that the private companies that have partnered with OCN aren’t entirely disinterested: smaller Canadian companies are competing with larger global companies for the same business and could have been frozen out entirely if a giant like Google had, early on, been given a massive share of the market. But he emphasizes that Open City isn’t simply proposing Sidewalk but with Canadian shareholders.

“We do think there is collective Canadian good that’s possible here,” Best says. “What’s best for the protection of democratic institutions and the modernization of government also can be what helps nurture a Canadian technology ecosystem.”

While there isn’t an off-the-shelf example of software that Ontario cities could simply download to manage a world of smart streetlights and internet-enabled fire hydrants, Best points to models in other countries — most notably, Estonia’s X-Road system, which allows citizens of that Baltic country to access 99 per cent of government services online, something the government estimates saves 844 person-years of labour annually. Federally, the Canadian government announced a Canadian Digital Exchange Platform with the intention of matching X-Road. Open City wants to build something that matches X-Road’s compatibility and openness for municipal data.

Best says that Open City’s future isn’t yet clear: the non-profit could simply disappear; it could be folded into government; or it could adopt some kind of hybrid model.

“We’re not trying to build an empire, here … We are all actively figuring this out, at every level of government,” Best says. “This is new for everybody, and part of what we’re trying to do is work collaboratively and share with governments at all levels.”

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