Smart Cities in Ontario: Paving the Way for a Connected Future

In terms of urban development, the concept of a ‘smart city’ has various interpretations. Specifically, we are referring to urban settings where digital technologies play a key role in augmenting the effectiveness of municipal services. Therefore, a smart city is not only about convenient paveways or green zones. It is way more about digitalization.

A smart city actively gathers and assesses data about public infrastructure interactions and usage, aiming to improve service delivery and enhance user experiences. This data is acquired through interconnected sensors and individual devices integrated into centralized networks responsible for managing service provision.

The adaptability of smart cities depends on the community’s purposes, requirements, and resources. Different cities, therefore, may have slightly different (or very different) versions of “smartness”.

Critical factors influencing the level of “smartness” include the volume and type of collected data, the level of interconnectivity among all kinds of infrastructure networks, and the utilization of data to guide decisions made by infrastructure owners and operators.

Toronto’s Attempt

Toronto recently achieved recognition as one of the leading smart cities globally, securing a position in the top 15, due to its commitment to green energy and openness to embracing cutting-edge technologies. And of course, it is one of the smartest cities in Ontario at the time of writing.

The EasyPark Group’s 2021 Global Smart City Index, part of the Cities of the Future Study, evaluated numerous cities worldwide. The ranking criteria included aspects such as the digital experiences of citizens, innovative advancements in mobility, the technological infrastructure supporting business, and the environmental impact of each city.

In the assessment of mobility innovation, the following factors were considered: inventive parking solutions, adequate traffic management, and the promotion of environmentally friendly transport. Toronto secured the 29th position out of 50 in this evaluation.

The evaluation of business tech infrastructure had factors such as the acceptance of electronic payments, advancements in business practices, and the speed of internet connectivity.

In the examination of sustainability, the focus was directed towards how cities harnessed green energy, embraced eco-friendly building practices, managed waste, and responded to climate challenges. Toronto stood out by securing the third position specifically for its commitment to green energy initiatives.

It is important to underline that Toronto wasn’t the only Canadian city acknowledged in this regard. Montreal secured the 17th position in the same population category as Toronto. Meanwhile, Vancouver earned the 14th spot within the population range of 600,000 to 3 million, and Quebec City achieved a respectable 26th ranking in the same evaluation.

However, the digitalization of infrastructure and accompanying services was stalled in Toronto, and several “smart city” projects were paused. The reason was the potential for security issues and data protection. And these are the factors that make other cities in Ontario and in Canada reluctant about the novice “smart city” technologies.

Smart Cities in Canada: The Obstacles

It is impossible to track the exact count of ongoing “smart city” projects in Canada. However, it is evident that there is a considerable level of interest in this domain. The enthusiasm for smart city initiatives became apparent as early as 2017 with the initiation of the Government of Canada “Smart Cities Challenge”.

More than 225 municipalities confirmed their interest in adopting the advantages offered by “smart city” technologies and submitted applications. This interest was not confined to specific regions; municipalities from every province and territory, from small towns to Indigenous communities and large urban centers, actively participated in the process.

Some provinces were more active while some were less interested. However, the issue of data protection and safety was one of the crucial nuances that all interested parties considered. And if Canada in general and Ontario in particular are not yet full of “smart cities” it is only because the technology is not yet so perfect and poses risks to security, including national security.

What kind of data is collected?

The types of information collected within the smart city context include: intelligent utility systems, technologically enhanced residences, self-driving vehicles, technologically advanced medical facilities, efficient commercial operations, and streamlined public transit systems.

For example, in traffic or transportation management, smart city technologies may gather data about the movement patterns of individuals within a city, along with the corresponding information. This personal data could originate from various sensors, encompassing audio and video recording devices, vehicle license plate readers, or personal mobile devices. So the point is that not only public transport gets tracked but also individual vehicles.

This concept thus applies to all niches and services. Smart houses in smart cities will collect extra information about residents, medical facilities will do the same, and all this data has to be collected, stored, and controlled. This is the source of an insanely huge risk to security.

To illustrate the risks, imagine you are googling ComeOn Ontario casino review online and then notice that context advertisements start showing you more casinos and gambling sites. Obviously, your interests have been noticed by the algorithms and used for the sake of corporations. Now imagine that the whole city around you, literally all the infrastructure, collects data about your movement patterns, the shops you visit, etc.

What are the security concerns?

The evolution toward smart cities marks the progression of vital infrastructure, forming the backbone of almost every service used in daily existence. This integration makes smart cities potential targets for both hostile actors within the state actors and criminals. Espionage, sabotage, and disruption can be taken to another level if someone breaches the security systems of smart cities.

Smart cities are expected to gather and manage substantial amounts of personal and corporate data, generated through engagements with and utilization of intelligent infrastructure. This information holds the potential to offer valuable insights, revealing profiles and behavioral patterns of Canadians. In the hands of criminals, this data can be exploited in numerous ways.

Key Considerations for Smart City Adoption

Security threats are real in the concept of smart cities and there are many aspects and nuances that have to be improved before we can move forward and integrate the concept further. Some of the important actions that have to be taken are as follows:

Integrate data governance and security into all phases of a smart city project.

Identify and apply global best practices to ensure the security of devices, networks, data, and applications.

Facilitate meaningful public consultation.

Be transparent with citizens about the data collected in smart cities and the ways it is used and handled, where it is stored, and how it is protected.

Prepare for and practice critical incident response to ensure a rapid response in case of incidents (e.g. data breach, cyber attack).

Currently, further development of smart cities in Canada is impossible without addressing the risks mentioned.

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