‘Smart city’ plan encompasses Internet, citizen participation, open data.
Montreal wants to be one of the world’s smartest cities, and it will start by offering free public Internet, encouraging citizen involvement and improving services on the web.
The city unveiled the broad strokes for its three-year plan to bring it up to speed with high-tech, efficient cities like Boston, Chicago, Stockholm and Lyon, France. The $23-million plan has few concrete details (these will be disclosed in March). But Harout Chitilian, vice-president of the city’s executive committee, laid out five main targets:
- Urban mobility. Improve the movement of people in the city with real-time technologies. For example, data on open parking spots would reduce the time driving around looking for a spot.
- Digital resident services. For example, a high-tech version of 311 (the city’s municipal services hotline) to receive and deliver service requests.
- Living environment. The creation of spaces for innovation and co-creation. For example, making public libraries more inviting for citizen collaboration.
- Transparency. Make the democratic process more accessible and releasing more municipal data for public scrutiny.
- Economic development. Support technology startups and citizen-led projects.
In addition, the city announced three short-term projects:
- Free public Wi-Fi in downtown Montreal and the Old Port. These would be deployed this year.
- Workshops for residents to learn how to use new digital tools, like the INFO-Neige MTL app that alerts users when their streets will be cleared of snow.
- High-speed fibreoptic lines brought closer to homes, to boost access to broadband Internet.
“Smart cities” is a new concept with varying definitions. The basic idea is the use of technologies to reduce waste, increase efficiency, improve services and communicate better with citizens. Montreal holds Lyon as a model. Among its initiatives are mobile apps that alert drivers of the quickest routes to avoid traffic jams, and a public electric car fleet integrated into its public transit system.
Montreal’s multiple public transit options, like STM buses, AMT trains, Communato car-share vehicles and Bixi bikes have their own apps. Integrating those data into a single point would make moving around easier, Chitilian said. One privately-made mobile application, Transit App, integrates several of those already.
Chitilian stressed the importance of inviting citizen participation in coming up with solutions to urban problems. He said the INFO-Neige MTL app, which spawned from a public competition, was a success.
“Our community is an asset. We must rouse it to help us build and realize our strategy,” he said.
The plan was well-received by members of Montreal’s technology community present at the announcement. However, the proof will be in the execution, skeptics warned.
Free public Wi-Fi has been attempted by other cities with discouraging results. Several turned out to be prohibitively expensive and unsustainable, according to a report by The Economist.
Chitilian said his team has learned from mistakes of the past, and insists it’s a service that is needed in a city.
One telecom consultant was skeptical of the plan to bring more fibre to homes. Mark Goldberg of Mark H. Goldberg & Associates Inc. said Montreal’s broadband infrastructure is robust enough for modern needs, and enjoys a competitive environment with two major providers that regularly upgrade their speeds.
“In most places where fibre is provided, people aren’t buying faster services,” he said. A better strategy would be to ensure that low-income homes have access to not only Internet, but to computers. Twenty per cent of households have none, he said.
“It would be far better to take that money and develop programs that target low-income households with children,” Goldberg said. “I have no idea how a kid competes at school today without access to a home computer.”