Speaking at the annual Living Labs Days conference in Montreal last week, staged for the first time in North America by the European Network of Living Labs, city councillor Harout Chitilian spelled out some of Montreal’s experiences while developing and implementing its Smart City strategy for an assembled audience of international researchers.
“I’m extremely proud and honoured that this discussion is taking place here in Montreal,” said Chitilian to a room full of conference-goers. “We want to be part of the discussion involving innovation in all areas that touch urban life.”
Chitilian’s actual title, Vice president of the City’s executive committee responsible for information technologies and the smart city, is a mouthful, and probably something of an indication of the breadth of expectation that the city is heaping on reversing its previous identity from that of a hopelessly corrupt urban metropolis to an internationally recognized innovation hub.
A surprising victory on that front came earlier this summer when Montreal beat out seven other finalists from around the world to win the Intelligent Community Forum’s 2016 Intelligent Community of the Year award.
While mayor Denis Coderre is an enthusiastic supporter of innovation and technology in general, not to mention being adept at Twitter, it’s Chitilian’s responsibility to oversee Montreal’s Ville Intelligente (or Smart City) strategy, which aims to position Montreal as a world leader among smart and digital cities, improving outcomes for both the city’s economic prosperity and improving quality of life for its citizens.
Chitilian was preceded in his address at the Living Labs conference by a presentation on the usefulness of localized Art Hives and Fab Labs for regular people in the community, and was followed by a Senior Operations Officer at the World Bank who commented on how impressed he was with Montreal’s progress in implementing many the ideas being discussed at the conference.
“Technology is a means. It’s not the final destination for us. We use technology to resolve issues. At the end of the day, we want to be more humane. It’s a question of being more human.” – City of Montreal’s Harout Chitilian
So how did Montreal, a city not previously renowned for its forward-thinking innovation, get here?
Next year is big for Montreal, being both the 375th anniversary of the city’s founding and the 50th anniversary of the retro-futuristic Expo ’67, the last time popular culture looked at the future mainly as a source of optimism rather than as dystopian nightmare fuel.
Montreal is a fluently bilingual francophone metropolis, with several universities conducting high-end research, as well as a developing network of accelerators, Fab Labs, and innovation centres, not to mention several anchor businesses with origins in the start-up community, such as Transit App, Lightspeed, Busbud, and Frank & Oak.
For Chitilian, the city’s recent successes are the fruit of several years of patient labour harnessing all the energy and intelligence already scattered throughout the city.
“In the last three years, we’ve looked at different ways to engage with the community, and to involve the community in designing new services, to involve the community in correcting issues, to involve the community to get feedback on what’s being done,” he says.
Chitilian adds, “We were lacking a certain set of expertise at the city, basically to bring data into the day-to-day of our administration, so we created a dedicated team for Business Intelligence, and every single opportunity that we have, we invest in the tools and we invest in the know-how to better make use of data in the coming years.”
Pointing to Montreal’s other more recent achievements, it’s easy to forget that Montreal is the home of Bixi, one of the earliest and most widely adopted examples of a municipality providing citizens with transportation options that emphasize smart, healthy and modular solutions over bloated mega-infrastructure.
Bixi ended up exporting its bikesharing hardware to New York City, London, Melbourne, and Washington, DC, and even to Toronto, where it has recently expanded to cover a larger service area outside the immediate downtown so that people can use it to commute.
Chitilian also points to Montreal’s early recognition that data is a natural resource, capable of transforming the way cities function if used correctly.
“We have an open-by-default data policy,” he says. “We have taken a keen interest in protecting privacy. And last but not least, as far as data is concerned, we have also signed many partnerships to basically share data and create value with that data.”
“We created a dedicated team for Business Intelligence, and every single opportunity that we have, we invest in the tools and we invest in the know-how to better make use of data in the coming years.” – Harout Chitilian
In April, Montreal partnered with crowd-sourced traffic and navigation app Waze, owned by Google, to implement a two-year pilot project aimed at improving traffic outcomes through the sharing of publicly available traffic information in the city’s downtown Ville-Marie borough.
InnoCité is Canada’s first Smart City accelerator, attracting companies dedicated to developing technological solutions for some of the key challenges facing the city, and cities in general.
To facilitate that initiative, this past June the city announced the creation of the Capital Intelligent Mtl initiative, a $100 million fund aimed at both start-ups and established businesses creating solutions for urban challenges, launched in partnership with 23 venture capital firms, financial institutions and corporations.
And as something of a constructive reply to the city’s mainly hostile approach to Uber, a homegrown all-electric fleet of taxis, Téo Taxi, officially launched in April after months in beta, run by local entrepreneur Alexandre Taillefer.
“A lot of these projects that we want to do involve integrating the public and private and institutional sectors,” says Chitilian. “A lot of the challenges we face is not from a lack of will. Everybody has the will to work together.”
Chitilian stresses that for him and for the city, the purpose of implementing a Smart City platform is not to gratuitously add a layer of technology to daily life, or to simply spread money around.
“Technology is a means. It’s not the final destination for us. We use technology to resolve issues,” he says. “At the end of the day, we want to be more humane. It’s a question of being more human.”
It’s a point that he says he has to repeat in every single meeting and discussion.
“Questioning the status quo, finding new ways to resolve issues, but unlike some smart city programs or projects, it’s not a technology driven project on its own,” he says, adding a perspective that ought to seem obvious not only to people charged with running government agencies, but also to for-profit companies who often seem to lose sight of technology’s actual purpose.
That said, heated sidewalks in winter would certainly be nice.