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Toronto | BAI Communications

Why the private sector has a big role to play in developing ‘smart cities’

21 September 2016

Author: Ken Ranger, CEO of BAI Canada

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and smart cities
In early 2016, Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, outlined how we’re on the brink of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – a fusion of technologies that represents an exponentially fast transformation unlike anything humanity has experienced before.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is changing who we are, Mr. Schwab argued, particularly when it comes to how we behave as consumers who demand and expect constant interconnectivity through endless access to mobile networks and data.

While the idea of the Fourth Industrial Revolution has existed for some time now, I often return to Mr. Schwab’s analysis when I engage in conversations around the subject of “smart cities” – a buzzworthy topic that has spurred regions across the globe to determine how best to incorporate digital technology and ICT into city planning to create efficiencies and improve services for citizens.

The imperative to create smart cities has already created an ecosystem of opportunities for entrepreneurs, city planners, academic institutes, corporations and other organizations across the globe.

Smart cities – A growing global trend
Taipei has implemented various smart-city concepts since at least 1999 and was accredited as the world’s largest Wi-Fi network city all the way back in 2006. Britain is a world leader in the field of smart street lighting, which is more energy efficient and can be timed to specific traffic patterns. And in one particularly unique example, Australia is using open data to protect and rebuild its priceless tree canopies.

In Liverpool this past June, I had the opportunity to attend the Connected City Summit as part of the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s WiFi Global Congress. There, global policy challenges of delivering connectivity were discussed, as well as what common guidelines on the development of efficient networks to support city services should look like.

More locally, the Toronto Board of Trade recently hosted a successful Smart Cities Summit, where Mayor John Tory kicked things off by stating that the time for anxiety and complacency has long passed. I couldn’t agree more.

The role of private companies in enabling smart cities
At the Smart Cities Summit, one area of focus was on the importance of collaboration between government and the private sector through PPPs (public private partnerships), as well as through the creation of “city data” that results from private companies integrating their data with cities.

These are both areas of prime importance, but supporting truly smart cities also requires new forms of collaboration between businesses, to ensure interoperability between devices exists on a shared network.

Take the ever-present topic of transit, for example. There are massive opportunities to use digital technology to improve transit planning, or integrate fare payment systems, or deliver real-time safety information. But in this era of constant connectivity, what people expect is the ability to stay connected wirelessly on their mobile devices through all parts of their public transit journey.

In New York, BAI Canada’s sister company, Transit Wireless, provides a “neutral host” wireless network within the subway system that provides connectivity to more than 2.6 billion passenger rides each year. Regardless of which cellular provider you use, the system works seamlessly to give people access to cellular, Wi-Fi and fibre services in 200 stations, with the full roll-out to all 278 underground stations expected by 2017.

This interoperability is possible in New York, one of the biggest subway systems in the world, because one after one, otherwise competing private carriers signed on in order to serve their customers – or, as Mr. Schwab wrote, they understood the changing environment and recognized the expectations their customers had.

As BAI moves ahead with similar improvements in other transit networks such as Toronto’s subway system and its more than 69 stations, private collaboration will continue to be critical. Customers and businesses need systems that work together, regardless of device model, carrier or other separators.

It is through the destruction of these barriers that cities will be able to realize their true potential as connected entities capable of taking on important challenges and providing better, more cost-effective services to their citizens, recognizing the true potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


This opinion piece initially appeared in Toronto’s The Globe and Mail newspaper. You can read the full article here