Notes from Technicity 2016: Building smarter cities

Technicity 2016 was an opportunity to gage Toronto’s progress towards the goal of a digital, connected, smarter city.

In the world of Information Technology in 2016, everything is moving very quickly. This year both the IoT and Blockchain technologies seem to have stolen the spotlight away from cloud computing, in comparison to last year.

The conference consisted of two keynote speeches, one short presentation and six panel sessions. All the sessions were, in my opinion, interesting and informative.

It was especially interesting to note that the terms cloud computing, IoT and smart city did not dominate the debate – the focus was on business and the impact of change. There was really only one session that mentioned IoT – the rest were about the customer, about data and about the challenges being faced by today’s CIOs.

We all know we’re in a period of disruptive change. Rob Meikle used the term “birthing” with respect to digital transformation. Lots of new technologies will change the way that a city works – you can imagine drones delivering parcels (coffee?) and robots congesting the crosswalks. Will drone lanes be layered on top of the bike lanes?

It was stated that Toronto is the third largest technology sector in North America, which is quite an accomplishment when you think about it.

Standards and data  

In the keynote, Dr. Mark Cox, an Urban Systems Engineer at the University of Toronto, zeroed in on the need for standards and the general issues associated with collecting, interpreting and managing data from multiple diverse sources. Basically, information management needs to move to a whole new level in the areas of accessing raw data, assuring data reliability, data interoperability, mitigating complexity, etc.

He also talked about the Smart City fallacy – i.e., the idea that a city is simply a system and can be controlled as such. He discussed ideas of managing complexity and changing to a behavioural view of transformation. There were four transformation dimensions to be considered: awareness (do systems remember?), responsiveness (are we doing the right things?), introspection (recognizing failures), and accountability.

I was left with the feeling that “the devil is in the details.”

The customer experience

A panel on transforming the customer experience also touched on the behavioural aspects of technology. Smart city automation is ultimately meant to improve the “city experience” for people – there are many stakeholders and many potential points of experience.

One goal is that most of the technology should be invisible to the end user. However, there was also a sense that improving the user experience also increases efficiency (e.g., less re-work, fewer accidents, increased safety, less complaints). From listening to this panel, I realized how important Artificial Intelligence and advanced user interfaces will be in the near future. The whole idea of a Smart Experience could become a key to success for the overall digital transformation.

This also drives a need for better integration, for several reasons. For example, it isn’t very sensible to have intelligent assistants for every vendor – who wants to have to talk to Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Assistant? Data sources lead to another level of integration – who wants multiple intelligent light bulbs on each telephone pole? APIs are becoming a key technology to allow integration across independent systems. All of this is to provide data for AI use, but it is also critical for making technology invisible.

In another session, it was stated that the adoption of emerging technology depends a lot on how it affects our five senses.

Security and privacy

There were observations that the sub-title of this panel: “Still constraints to growth?” was debatable; the idea was that providing excellent security and privacy is an incentive to growth, not a constraint. I believe the title was actually questioning whether security was still as much of a problem as it was five years ago.

It is now claimed that cloud service providers have caught up to and surpassed the quality of security available in on-premises data centres. However, the emergence of IoT has caused the “death of the perimeter” since there will be so many endpoints and potentially many owners. While security by design continues to be critical, it is difficult to assure its adoption in a multivendor IoT ecosystem.

There is a need to improve on identities by finding a way to create a single identity for both the physical and virtual worlds. This is where establishing trust also comes into play.

Everyone needs to be involved in ensuring security and privacy are the highest level. For example, security must be built into the IoT from the beginning, not patched on as an after-thought. There are already examples of IoT devices being used for Internet breaches.

The general conclusion is that security is no longer a constraint but cannot be treated as a solved problem.

Some additional thoughts

A few additional items that I noted from the other panels:

  • IoT is starting to look like a “nervous system” for cities (and the world) – there is a need for a framework and process for development – this is a part of the large scale digital transformation that goes beyond each organization independently;
  • There are already lots of sensors out there, but the big problem is bringing them all together (and providing a common level of technology);
  • There remain questions related to the “precision” of the data – just how many sensors are required, how often readings are needed and how fast processing must be done (which also leads to how much data is actually needed for the application);
  • Data has value and can be monetized – the open data movement provides opportunities to innovate with software and processing; open data should be free, machine readable and accessible, which is often not true for government data sets where a variety of formats and media may be used;
  • Cities must work closely with entrepreneurs and innovators, both to support them and also to engage with those who could develop smart city apps; there can be no “big bang” change, however, as everything takes time and budget;
  • In Toronto, there are many examples of initiatives that will pay off over time – examples were the Toronto Waterfront development, the connected police officer program, open data for car traffic, design programs at OCAD, and the conversion of Toronto’s extensive library system into digital hubs and innovation points.

There are many successes and some lessons to be shared through events such as Technicity. Perhaps the most important thing is the possibilities for further collaboration – there are many cities that can share many developments if the “not invented here” syndrome can be avoided.

Perhaps “open city” sharing could even be modeled after “open source” software projects.

This is what I was thinking on Dec. 7th, what do you think?

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Don Sheppard
Don Sheppard
I'm a IT management consultant. I began my career in railways and banks after which I took up the consulting challenge! I try to keep in touch with a lot of different I&IT topics but I'm usually working in areas that involve service management and procurement. I'm into developing ISO standards, current in the area of cloud computing (ISO JTC1/SC38). I'm also starting to get more interested in networking history, so I guess I'm starting to look backwards as well as forwards! My homepage is but I am found more here.

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