What Canada’s Approach to Poverty Can Teach The U.S. About Smart Cities

Columnist David Brooks recently wrote an article for the New York Times “Winning the War on Poverty.” The story celebrated Canada’s approach, methodology and resulting 20 percent reduction in the official poverty rate. And then he contrasted Canada’s success with the current reality in America.

Brooks states, “Before I describe this methodology, let’s pause to think about what it’s often like in American poor areas. Everything is fragmented. There are usually a bevy of public and private programs doing their own thing… The people working in these programs have their heads down, because it’s exhausting enough just to do their own work.”

Mr. Brooks was not talking about smart cities, but his descriptive words may as well have been referring to the challenges faced by both the public and private sector in implementing smart city technology. Uncoordinated approaches often hinder the ability to achieve the greater goals of any smart city effort which (at its best) includes increasing efficiency, equity and economic prosperity.

Perhaps the modern smart city movement can learn something from the community that has been attempting to eradicate poverty for decades. Here are a few points from Mr. Brooks’ article and relevant points related to smart cities.

1 – Gather people from different sectors to work on a common challenge

Brooks writes, “About 15 years ago, a disparate group of Canadians realized that a problem as complex as poverty can be addressed only through a multi-sector comprehensive approach… They begin by gathering, say, 100 people from a single community. A quarter have lived with poverty; the rest are from business, nonprofits and government.”

The most successful smart cities are using a “multi-sector comprehensive” approach. Some, including the Dallas Innovation Alliance, leverage Public Private Partnerships. Others, like the AZ Institute for Digital Progress (AZ IDP) begin their efforts through a university and then expand to include other sectors. Those municipalities whose smart city efforts begin in City Hall move furthest the fastest when involvement is welcomed from outside local government.

As far back as the 1990s, Henry Etzkowitz and Loet Leydesdorff coined the term, Triple Helix to describe how collaboration between academia, industry and government creates greater economic gains. Later in 2011, Loet Leydesdorff and Mark Deakin related this concept to the area of smart cities, further emphasizing that we can accomplish more, and for the greater good, by uniting sectors rather than further dividing them.

2 – Combine local approaches that are unique to each community while also building a national framework

Brooks writes about how Canadian communities “spent a year learning about poverty in their area, talking with the community” and then combined those approaches into a broader plan. “Each town’s assets are different. So each town’s plan is different. By the time Canada’s national government swung into action, the whole country had a base of knowledge and experience. The people in the field had a wealth of connections and a sense of what needed to be done.”

When the U.S. Department of Transportation launched the Smart Cities Challenge in 2016, there was a brief moment when it seemed the federal government would take a leadership role. Since then, there has been little to support that this will be the case. In the gap, local communities have stepped up and created their own plans, even though there is some commonality on topics. For example, San Diego and Orlando have both prioritized sustainability but are executing their own unique plans that are customized to maximize their regional assets.

There is still hope that federal agencies will be able to offer some stability measures in the way of establishing standards or funding mechanisms. By banding together with a common vision, city leaders can perhaps appeal to their regional, state and national leaders to establish this level of unity. Cohesion is what it will take to make meaningful progress towards being a smart-er nation.

3 – Establish mechanisms to encourage constant iteration and learning

“The process of learning and planning and adapting never ends,” writes Brooks. This statement is incredibly applicable to smart cities. As many have stated on many a conference panel, the process of digital evolution is not a destination, it is a journey.

Anyone who has been active in the practice of advancing connected technology in a city setting knows, as soon as one challenge seems resolved through a pilot, new challenges arise during the scaling process. When smart city programs that were once so arduous to plan and implement finally get going, an administration changes or a staff moves to a new post. It is a marketplace that is constantly shifting, learning and adapting. Understanding that from the beginning may relieve frustration. It will never end.

So What’s Next for American Smart Cities?

“…in many American communities we’re mostly scattershot. That’s the problem with our distrust and polarization. We often don’t build structures across difference. Transformational change rarely gets done.”

Let’s not make this the reality for the future of smart cities. Let’s abandon our propensity to be “scattershot”, fragmented, distrustful, and separate. Instead let’s focus on inviting different voices, ideas, and perspectives to the conversation. We must move away from single-focus, one-off solutions; wide-scale adoption (and the resulting major impact) requires a systematic convening of community where people buy-in to a centralized plan. Just look at Canada’s success related to poverty and you can see the result of a collaborative effort.

This is not a problem for other people to solve. There is something each of us can do, no matter your professional background. City leaders, invite industry to the table. Industry leaders, reach out with humility to municipal leaders and find a new creative way to leverage your incredible resources. Academics, lend your expertise on solving urgent challenges. Entrepreneurs, innovate in a highly risk-laden sector – local government. Nonprofit leaders and community advocates, explore how technology can help you do your job better and with higher levels of success. We all have something to give. We all have something to learn.

Let’s look to our neighbors to the North and imitate some of their best practices. Perhaps David Brooks will have a better story to tell about the American approach, maybe not to poverty, but to smart cities.