Ottawa, it’s 2022. We’re all vaccinated. Things are back to normal (well, as normal as they can be), and life goes on. What’s next on the horizon for the great capital of Canada? Municipal elections. I know, riveting.
While you may scoff at the idea that municipal elections are the next best thing besides sliced bread, I beg to differ. It may not be the sexiest topic, but the 2022 Ottawa municipal elections can be greatly important for our city and community. More specifically, I want to focus on bringing the Ottawa community into the future, with further digitalization, connectivity, and innovation.
- Connected City: Create a city where all residents and businesses are connected in an efficient, affordable and ubiquitous way.
- Smart Economy: Stimulate economic growth by supporting knowledge-based business expansion and attraction, local entrepreneurs, and smart talent development.
- Innovative Government: Develop new and innovative ways to impact the lives of residents and businesses through the creative use of new service delivery models, technology solutions, and partnerships.
While this plan was unveiled only three years ago, it seems as though the city has started to put together the screws and bolts of the plan; however, this was before the world imploded from a virus that has caused us all to swap our kakis for sweat pants. COVID-19 has undeniable changed the way cities – especially Ottawa – function. With a large chunk of Ottawa’s working population employed by the public service (including myself), we flocked to the downtown core every day to work our traditional white collar 9 to 5 office jobs. Now, we do all this from the comfort of our home office (or bedroom, kitchen chair, make-shift standing desk, etc.). Downtown Ottawa is now – for the most part – desolate. Things have drastically changed, and we’d be fools to think that Ottawa will function in the future as it did in the past. I don’t think the federal public service will ever go back to working from the office 100%. So what does this mean for the future of Ottawa’s smart-city plan? Here are my two cents:
The roll-out of Ottawa’s LRT system has been – for lack of better words – a disaster. Besides its technical and logistical issues, train cars are now generally empty. The whole purpose of the LRT was to ship public servants from the suburbs to the downtown core. However, with the future of the 9 to 5 office job in question, will the LRT continue to serve its purpose in the future? The next Ottawa mayor should consider making sure the LRT connects neighborhoods – aka. people to people – and not just serve as a shuttle to downtown. Why? People will still be working from home in years – decades – to come. Ottawa city leadership should be focusing on moving people from neighbourhood to neighbourhood and reducing our reliance on cars and fossil fuel.
Alongside this, we should be continuing our investment in the 25-kilometer test course for autonomous and connected vehicles. Connecting our current public transit with autonomous vehicles in the future will not only fulfill one of the priorities of Ottawa’s Smart City 2.0 Plan but also ensure we stay connected – with both people and technologies.
COVID-19 has significantly hampered the ability of Ottawa’s small and medium sized businesses (especially those offering non-essential services) from growing. However, most have been able to adapt to this digital world – some SMEs pivoted immediately to online orders, others offer curb-side pickup, and almost all have accessible websites and social media accounts. The next mayor of Ottawa should work to ensure SMEs have enough support to continue operating in a digital environment – this will require coordination with the provinces and federal government.
In addition to SMEs, Ottawa should continue to invest in tech and incubator clusters. Ottawa’s Bayview Yards was arguably a huge success, and a second phase of developing the area has been discussed. This is absolutely the right direction to take to ensure Ottawa can cultivate tech and start-up businesses and allow for a collaborative space for entrepreneurs.
An Ottawa Business Journal article also added that another aspect of Ottawa’s smart economy could focus on “precision agriculture” in order to engage the city’s agricultural sector and meet rising demand for tools that help to maximize farmers’ yields. With Ottawa’s 427 hectare experimental farm area, this is absolutely another avenue to support SMEs and businesses of the future.
Publically accessible digital tools
As per Ottawa’s Smart City 2.0 strategy, “to be able to fully prosper in a smart economy, Ottawa needs to take steps to ensure all residents and businesses have equal and affordable access to broadband technology.” This means the City should not only take an active role in facilitating the deployment of affordable widespread broadband, but also ensure that residents and businesses have the proper skills and tools to utilize technology.
In order to bridge the digital divide, Ottawa leadership should ensure three main things: (1) Wifi is available is all major public places (downtown, outdoors on Parliament Hill, etc.) (2) Publically accessible computers are more widely available (i.e. expand the library computer access to community centres, homeless shelters, etc.), and (3) ensure broadband is affordable for lower income communities. Back in 2017, I wrote on how the internet should be considered a human right. If this is truly the case, then broadband should be affordable and accessible across Ottawa. By using Ottawa’s Neighbourhood Equity Index, we can see just how unequal and divided of a city we still are. We need to bridge this digital divide.
The third piece of Ottawa’s smart city plan revolves around improving the processes of government. Sample initiatives include a mobile-first strategy, improving access to the city’s open data and generating better feedback through service delivery analytics. And we’ve made progress on this! We already have an Open Ottawa open data app. However, I’m ashamed to say I had never even heard of this until this week. The next Ottawa mayor should work on engagement, education and advocacy to ensure citizens know of these initiatives and can contribute to citizen-led data creation.
Coordination and cooperation with Gatineau
This is a thorny issue. Ottawa and Gatineau share five bridges, share multiple federal government office buildings, and share public transit systems. It’s closer to drive to Hull from downtown Ottawa than it is to drive to Orleans or Nepean. But, we’re separated by a thorny provincial border. And in my humble opinion, it sucks. We should be operating like one community – much like Washington DC – but we don’t. In order for Ottawa to become a tech-savvy and technologically connected city of the future, we need to work alongside Gatineau to make sure they become one as well.
My last point swerves slightly to an urban planning perspective but is one I think is key to the future of the city. We are growing – according to CTV, we are the second fastest growing city in Canada. City planners keep debating building out versus building up. While I won’t argue herein which method we should choose, I will say how important it is to ensure we build sustainably and adaptively. Take for example Hendrick Farms – a new development in Chelsea, Quebec and only a 20-min drive from Ottawa. The developers are using adaptive urban planning to incorporate layers of planning that reflect the historical, social and environmental realities of a specific site.
Ottawa should be ditching the concrete jungle and suburban strip mall ideal. When building new communities within the city, we should be prioritizing connectivity between homes, people, and technology. How? Build shops, restaurants, cafes and public spaces within neighbourhoods; integrated within streets – not in suburban strip malls. Digitize these businesses and connect consumers directly to them. Imagine in Kanata being able to order a coffee from your phone and walk to your local café down the street to pick it up, instead of hopping in your gas-guzzling F150 and driving to a Starbucks 5km away. This may take a mentality change, but it truly could improve the connectivity of our city, and drive us (pun intended) into the future.
We don’t know who the 2022 candidates are going to be just yet. But I hope whoever is running for office will take into account how important these issues are. Especially with COVID-19, we need to ensure we build back better, build back more resilient, and build back towards the future.
 The OECD defines a smart city as “initiatives or approaches that effectively leverage digitalisation to boost citizen well-being and. deliver more efficient, sustainable and inclusive urban services and environments as part of a collaborative, multi-stakeholder process”.