Op-ed: Forget about Toronto, Sidewalk Labs – build a smart neighbourhood in Ottawa instead

An urban affairs researcher makes the case for Sidewalk Labs and other smart city developers to turn their attention to LeBreton Flats
LeBreton
An aerial view of LeBreton Flats.

This opinion piece is part of an OBJ series on smart city technology. You can read about the privacy concerns associated with the data generated from smart city applications here.

After failed attempts to develop LeBreton Flats, the National Capital Commission recently announced it was adopting a new approach for developing the 21-hectare property.

This reset is positive news because it gives Ottawa a rare opportunity to beat other North American cities, particularly Toronto and Montreal, in developing smart city infrastructure and sector expertise.

Smart cities use available and emerging technology to tackle their greatest policy and service challenges. With cities around the globe rapidly undertaking projects to become smarter, it’s unsurprising that U.K.-based ARUP Group estimates the annual marketplace for smart city solutions could hit as high as $1.8 trillion by 2020.

Ottawa is already a smart city, thanks to its strong history of innovation fuelled by a diverse ecosystem of tech firms and STEM talent. Becoming smarter and growing Ottawa’s density of tech companies are well-documented priorities for Ottawa city council.

That’s why LeBreton Flats should strategically be leveraged to attract North American tech firms to develop and showcase smart, inclusive and resilient communities for Ottawans to live in and for the world to notice.

As the NCC seeks new partners to develop LeBreton Flats, now in smaller stages, it should proactively engage developers who are smart city minded and willing to partner with tech firms to design and construct smart infrastructure and mixed-use developments. Finding such companies won’t be difficult.

Smart city developers and tech firms are fighting for the chance to build on small parcels of Toronto’s underdeveloped waterfront. Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, has been given the first crack at a smart neighbourhood through a project known as Quayside. According to a recent Environics Research survey, 55 per cent of Toronto respondents supported this smart city project, and just 11 per cent opposed it.

The NCC should invite the many businesses sitting on Quayside’s sidelines to tour LeBreton Flats to see what an LRT-accessible, centrally located and council-supported project looks like. Moreover, the NCC should inform these businesses they could start developing a smart community in Ottawa today, rather than waiting years for a shot in Toronto. Even Sidewalk Labs should be invited to swing by for a look.

If the NCC and Ottawa council decide to foster smart development with the tech community in LeBreton Flats, it will require some additional work upfront to establish a robust policy for new data generated by smart city infrastructure. Then again, this is work the City of Ottawa needed to do at some point anyway.

Smart city infrastructure is coming. The question is whether Ottawa wants to lead the innovation and reap the ensuing rewards.

Patrick Gill is an urban affairs researcher and joint author of BiblioTech – a proposal for putting city libraries in charge of data generated by smart city infrastructure.