We need to promote our cities

Cities play a vital role in Canada’s economic growth, as centres of innovation, employment and trade, serving as the connecting points to the global economy and the destination points for talented immigrants from around the world.

Cities play a vital role in Canada’s economic growth, as centres of innovation, employment and trade, serving as the connecting points to the global economy and the destination points for talented immigrants from around the world.

Moreover, the majority of Canadians live in cities, so quality of life also matters.

Yet for all their importance, there is no clear federal framework for the promotion and economic development of our cities.

To be sure, there is a constitutional issue: Cities are creatures of the provinces, and provinces jealously guard their powers.

But the federal government does have responsibility for Canada’s economic performance and many federal policies impact on our cities — from tax policy, infrastructure funding, public health, trade policy, and immigration to support for research and universities, housing, tourism promotion, transportation and aviation policy, clean water standards, the environment, heritage and culture, industry support programs and telecommunications and digital policies.

Yet there is little evidence of a cross-cutting strategy to promote our cities as innovation and growth poles. Infrastructure Canada and Transport Canada have the highest profiles when it comes to cities but silos are still prevalent.

What’s needed today is a more coherent approach by the federal government in understanding the impact of its policies on cities and, equally important, deliberately designing policies that will strengthen the economic role of cities while also improving quality of life.

Canada’s future depends on smart cities that are also green cities and innovative cities.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, the multinational consulting firm, recently published its latest Cities of Opportunity report, which tracks and analyzes the policies and performance of the world’s major 30 cities. Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is not only one of the 30 but actually ranks fourth in the report’s overall rating. Clearly it is doing some things right. Toronto ranked first in quality of housing and second in quality of life and in health, safety and security.

Yet there are also areas where Toronto is not performing that well, and these shortcomings would likely apply to other Canadian cities as well. For example, in the digital economy Toronto ranks 22nd, in technology readiness, Toronto stands 13th, as a city gateway it stands 18th, and in economic clout it stands ninth.

Ottawa’s failure to look hard at the potential for smart cities in its recent digital strategy undermines the potential for our cities to become leaders in the next stage of the Internet revolution, what has variously been called the Internet of Things or the Internet of Everything.

Several new technologies are enabling a massive enhancement of the Internet. One is the introduction of Fourth Generation Long-Term Evolution (4G-LTE) technology, which means wireless technology will be able to handle massive flows of data at high speeds, enabling connections with many new sensor and other monitoring technologies with a huge array of potential applications — monitoring traffic flows, public safety, water and energy systems, public health and many other aspects of city life — which will boost city economies, productivity and quality of life.

Another major technology is the transition to Internet Protocol 6 (IPv6), from IPv4, which will enable literally trillions of devices to be connected to the Internet, compared to a limit of about four billion devices with IPv4.

Billions of sensor and other devices will be connected to the Internet for data collection, processing and organization into useful and actionable information. Smart buildings, smart energy, smart traffic and transit, and many other applications will be possible.

These are just two of the big technology changes that will transform how cities perform. But the key point is that the federal government, in its programs, needs to think bigger.

The federal government has a new 10-year New Building Canada Fund of $53 billion — but it should focus, with Industry Canada, on employing smart technologies in all major projects.

This cross-cutting approach is needed throughout the federal government. We want our cities to be at the leading edge of innovation, productivity and technology, since this will be both a source of new jobs and new companies and will also enable existing companies to be more competitive and cities to function more efficiently. This wealth creation will provide cities with more resources to improve quality of life.

While much of the leadership must come from cities themselves, putting our cities high on the national agenda can pay huge dividends which is why it should be a national priority.

Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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