The IT sector’s role in the Trudeau government’s planned innovation agenda is yet to be spelled out. But the promise of a Smart City Challenge this year, with strong support from the Canadian Council on Public-Private Partnerships, should be seen as one important way to advance Ottawa’s promised innovation agenda.

IT companies will have the chance to team up with cities and infrastructure companies to help advance smart city/smart infrastructure technologies and systems in Canada. It is an opportunity to demonstrate and scale up Canadian IT innovations and to show how IT can be linked with physical infrastructure to deliver business and public benefits.

Canada is wrestling with both an infrastructure gap, after years of underinvestment, and an innovation gap from poor innovation performance in the business sector over many years. Improving both is essential to improve our fundamental economic prospects. By linking infrastructure and innovation, we increase the potential to help close both our infrastructure gap and our innovation gap,  developing the business capacities for what will become one of the world’s biggest export opportunities as a growing global population becomes a more urban population.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau, in his fiscal update, announced that “cities across Canada will be invited to develop Smart Cities Plans together with local government, citizens, businesses and civil society” for the “implementation of clean, digitally connected technology including greener buildings, smart roads and advanced energy systems, and advanced digital connectivity for homes and businesses.”

The Canadian plan is modelled on a similar competition in the United States. The U.S. Smart Cities Challenge was launched in December 2015, with a $40 million USD prize for the winning city. Vulcan Inc., a company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, promised another $10 million USD to the winning city and other businesses also promised additional support.

The $40 million prize would go to a mid-sized city and city-region that could “demonstrate how advanced data and intelligent transportation systems technologies and applications can be used to reduce congestion, keep travellers safe, protect the environment, respond to climate change, connect underserved communities, and support economic vitality.”

Much of the focus was on integrating advanced technologies, including connected and automated vehicle technologies, into the management and operations of the city. The goal was to persuade cities to take what were called revolutionary steps to go to the next levels of technology, including digital technology and the Internet of Things. Columbus, Ohio was named the winning city in June of this year, barely six months after the competition was announced.

What was remarkable was the extent to which businesses and universities contributed to the proposals.  Columbus, for example, raised an additional $90 million USD from private sector partners and the seven finalists, altogether, raised about $500 million USD from private sector partners in their bids.

In the Canadian competition, the Trudeau government not only needs to make sure the prize is significant to attract serious proposals. It also needs to ensure that smaller Canadian companies are part of city proposals so they have the chance to demonstrate and scale up their capabilities.

Here, the British experience is important. Britain has been pursuing a Smart Cities strategy since 2012, starting with its Future Cities Demonstrators project, a nationwide competition that challenged cities to propose large-scale smart solutions to urban problems. Glasgow won, and in 2012 was awarded UKP24 million to help implement its proposal.

In 2013, the British government issued two papers. One, Smart Cities: Background Paper, outlined the opportunities created by transforming city infrastructure. By embracing new smart technologies for its own cities, the paper said, Britain could “strengthen  its position as a global hub of  expertise at a time when cities throughout the world are seeking innovative solutions to the challenges of urbanization.” Success, it said, depended on British cities serving as innovative and demanding customers, continuous development of capability, and staying abreast of global developments and seizing opportunities.

A second paper, The Smart City Market: Opportunities for the UK, stressed that cities “can be great proving grounds for technologies, providing opportunities for people to invent new things, and opportunities to test and sell them. Cities therefore present an opportunity for suppliers and consumers of smart technologies.” It said Britain should build strengths not only in technology but in engineering, design, research, financing and software services.

That same year the British government established the Smart Cities Forum, an advisory body from cities, business and universities and chaired by a Cabinet minister to promote Smart Cities development and advance the export of Smart City goods and services. At the same time, it established what it called a Future Cities Catapult, modelled on Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, to help companies bring Smart City ideas to market, with the goal of making it a global centre of excellence on urban innovation. A Transport Systems Catapult and a Connected Digital Economy Catapult were also established and the three centres are collaborating on Smart City projects.

In 2015, the British government launched IoTUK to help businesses and the public sector advance their Internet of Things capabilities, with a £40 million investment and powered by the Future Cities and Connected Digital Economy catapults. In one early competition – the Internet of Things Cities Demonstrator Competition – Manchester won UKP10 million for its proposal on how cities could effectively use the Internet of Things. Cisco UK supported the Manchester proposal, helping to establish a UK IoT Center of Excellence to help start-ups and small and midsize businesses to develop and test new Smart City solutions. That same year, techUK, the voice of Britain’s high-tech industry, launched SmarterUK, focussing on smart cities, energy and utilities and transport.

Ottawa’s commitment to a Smart Cities Challenge is a hopeful first step in linking infrastructure and innovation, and creating an at-home market to develop and scale up Canadian capabilities. But it is only that.

Infrastructure and innovation have to become a much higher priority at all three levels of government. Another early step, as the International Monetary Fund has urged for Canada, would be a national summit of all three levels of government to make Smart Cities and Smart Infrastructure a major national project for Canada’s future.

This is the first of  David Crane’s new monthly column focused on Innovation.  David can be reached at crane@interlog.com