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Montreal one of the “Smart21”

What is an ‘intelligent’ community?

We live in an age when you can call a taxi with a click of a button or chat with someone on the other side of the world in a matter of seconds. In our increasingly connected world, broadband communications and information technology are changing communities around the world.

The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) is a non-profit organization that researches, encourages discussion, and brings awareness to the development of modern cities. According to the ICF, an intelligent community is one that has been able to understand and take steps toward addressing the problems brought up by a broadband economy, such as increasing migration from rural areas to large cities. Louis Zacharilla, along with co-founders John Jung and Robert Bell, began this initiative in order to find ways to marry access to information and communications technology (ICT) with economic development and restoration of cities.

The ICF has named 21 of the world’s ‘top intelligent communities’ since 1999 in an attempt to bring greater visibility to their initiative and encourage discourse among communities. This year, Montreal was named as one of the “Smart21,” along with other cities such as Hsinchu City, Taiwan, and Nairobi County, Kenya.

The naming of the ‘Smart21’ is largely a venture promoting the idea of intelligent cities. “What we meant to do was to give visibility to the idea […] even though to a large extent, this kind of stuff is always somewhat arbitrary,” Zacharilla admitted. When cities submit their applications for nomination, academic analysts assess these cities based on five criteria developed by ICF: broadband infrastructure, innovation, knowledge workforce, digital inclusion, and marketing and advocacy. Another challenge described by Zacharilla was the difficulty in conducting quantitative analysis on the largely qualitative data provided by cities – and in comparing cities like Montreal that are populated with over a million people with cities such as Wanganui, New Zealand that have less than 20,000 people. Though the selection process may be less than perfect, the value in this process comes from the conversations and subsequent changes that are born out of this initiative.

 “I always had my hometown in mind – how could it have been different, what happened, and how is it happening again?”

The trend of increasing migration of individuals toward cities brings up concerns. “More people now live in cities than ever before in human history, which means a lot of places are being largely depopulated […] and the economies are suffering – making this a real global problem,” Zacharilla told The Daily. Zacharilla grew up in a small railroad town in upstate New York that he saw deteriorate as the railroad became less of an important infrastructure. Businesses eroded, and the ‘best and brightest’ migrated to the cities. When describing the motivation behind getting involved with ICF, Zacharilla explained, “I always had my hometown in mind – how could it have been different, what happened, and how is it happening again?”

TechnoMontréal, the information and communication technology cluster of Montreal, was responsible for the city’s submission to the ICF. TechnoMontréal has been working on the Montréal Digital Metropolis project since 2010. This project has focused on three major axes – collaborative ecosystems, smart data, and digital infrastructures – with the hope of creating awareness, mobilizing the public sector, and developing projects.

Collaborative ecosystems include the development of ‘living labs,’ which allow for innovation to occur with the user at the forefront of the development process. One example is the Living Lab SAT (Société des Arts Technologiques) at the Ste. Justine University Hospital Centre. Here, digital arts are being used for the development of treatment for patients. Developing digital infrastructures involve initiatives such as bringing accessible Wi-Fi to all citizens. In Montreal, this is being done through collaboration with organizations such as Île sans fil by creating areas of free internet access throughout the city.

By facilitating the use and access to open data sets, changes can be made from various systems that range from health to transportation. A major consideration for Montreal is developing smart transportation. “Transport is one of the things that really need to be worked on,” Lidia Divry, CEO of TechnoMontréal, told The Daily.

Divry emphasized the importance of being labelled one of the Smart21, “I think it will be very important for Montreal in terms of accelerating progress. With the municipal elections happening, there are a number of candidates who have [brought up] smart cities, [and] since two years ago, we’ve been talking to the government about moving toward smart cities.” Despite the research that is being done, and changes that are happening at grassroots levels, the support of the government is needed for widespread implementation of the various smart initiatives.

Though Montreal was labelled one of the top intelligent communities, there are considerations that must be made in order to maintain this status. Montreal has a ways to go in order to develop a ‘smart’ transportation system, and still have room to grow in terms of making the internet accessible for all. Montreal does not stand on its own however, and its acknowledgement as an intelligent community should be used, as Zacharilla stated, to allow for broader knowledge transformation across communities to allow improvements to other participating communities.