INTERVIEW: Toronto CIO Rob Meikle On Building Your Smart City Road Map

December 18, 2017

Toronto has long been a Smart City pioneer, but this year has really put them above the crowd. In October, Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs announced that they would partner with the city to transform the 800 square foot waterfront district into a Smart City living laboratory. A month later, at the Smart City Expo World Congress, Toronto partnered with UrbanLogiq to pilot new economic development solutions.

Behind every Smart City success story is a team of dedicated officials making it happen, and Chief Information Officer Rob Meikle is an MVP in that regard. Since joining Toronto in early 2015, Meikle has helped guide the city's Smart City evolution. At this year's Smart City Expo World Congres, Meikle was able to sit down with Smart & Resilient Cities to discuss how the city has continued to exemplify Smart City innovation.

Smart & Resilient Cities: What were some of the most valuable insights you picked up at the Expo?

Rob Meikle: Creating a holistic, strategic, road map. Right now, in terms of the internet things and the billions of sensors that are out there, there are so many things you can do. But a holistic, strategic approach really focuses on outcome, what you want to achieve for your city. For me, being responsible, by-and-large, for that implementation, we learned that understanding and validating your technology footprint is really key. There are some organizations that are out there that assist with that and I think that’s what we need so we can learn from what other cities have done. We need to make sure that the foundation is solid so as we add more things, for the internet of things, we have a resilient, reliable and available platform that we cannot onlu integrate technology but extract, mine, analyze, harvest, catalyze and monetize data. We are committed to being a data-driven city. What I mean by that is using data to make smart decisions, not only insight but foresight as we plan to deliver source excellence and enhance quality of life.

S&RC: You’ve given this answer before I feel like.

RM: I’m in the middle of it, I live it. I’ve been speaking about smart cities for years now. I am one of the earlier adopters and pioneers of seeing the value proposition. When I joined the city of Toronto, the Toronto waterfront was a specific geographical area that has been in the smart cities domain for some time and I saw it and I said, "This is phenomenal." I just entrenched myself in it and the more that I started looking around globally, I realized there is some really good stuff we are doing in Torontoy. So it just comes out naturally because I’ve talked on it so many times.

S&RC: You mentioned that Toronto has always had a smart city vision. Has that vision always been a holistic road map or something you’ve altered as you’ve gone on?

RM: So we’ve had a smart cities framework, I want to explain that. Smart cities hasn’t changed the vision; the vision has been to improve the quality of life for people that live, work and play in the city of Toronto. Economic prosperity, environmental  sustainability and social advocacy. What has changed is the political leadership and the administrative leadership to embrace technology and data to deliver against that vision. So, we are very fortunate to have a mayor - Mayor John Tory - who has been an advocate on  leveraging technology to be a catalyst for economic development in the city of Toronto.  What we are finding is there are more pieces connecting to that vision and now we are looking more pragmatically, more strategically, more tactically and operationally on how do you take the vision and make it a reality.

S&RC: So you and Toronto have been in the smart city game for way longer than a lot of the cities I’ve talked to. What would you say are some of the biggest takeaways you would recommend to cities just starting out?

RM: I think the first one is a broadband assessment. When I say a broadband assessment, you really don’t know until you’ve done and quantified your broadband coverage. I mean ensuring access to the internet for everybody. Digital inclusion. When I say access, regardless of economic status, I mean physical and affordable access. Affordable means you have more than one choice. If you only have one choice, it probably won’t be affordable because they have a corner on the market. I think the first step is to understand your technology footprint from a digital infrastructure. Cities have been in the urban planning game for centuries, for decades, for generations. We’ve done a great job in a lot of cases around the world planning cities not just for today, but for the future. We need to take that same urban planning approach to our digital infrastructure. When you build a community you make sure there are roads, water, utilities, lighting, park spaces, pedestrian walkways - all those things that make a healthy and vibrant neighborhood. We need to take the same approach with digital infrastructure. The first step, then, is understanding your digital infrastructure from a broadband coverage and make sure it has the capacity as you build on various internet things and sensors to drive those solutions.

S&RC: How would you recommend cities finance that? The differences are obvious between Canada and the U.S., but how would you go about telling a city how to update their legacy broadband systems?

RM: Focus on your core competencies.The city of Toronto is not a telecommunications company, so our job is not to build out the infrastructure. Our job is to work in a collaborative manner with those service providers to ensure there are standards and drive towards open access to standards within your geographical regions. I guess if a city is rich enough and small enough to build to build out its own fiber network, that’s great. Take advantage if you can do that and you have the capital, but typically, cities are strapped for cash and capital so I would say leverage your ecosystem, in terms of your technology on partners and specifically your service providers to ensure you are getting that right coverage and its affordable.

S&RC: A big theme here has been civic engagement, making sure citizens are onboard. How has Toronto gone about making sure citizens are involved in the smart city efforts?

RM: A lot of listening, and fundamentally, I think it’s a change of mindset. I think citizen engagement is recognition that they are part of the open democracy ecosystem. It’s not just the government and the departments that are delivering the services, its really the citizens and the businesses and those that have a stake in the city and are fostering, where possible, that two-way dialogue. We foster that dialogue by making datasets available so citizens, stakeholders, community interest groups, businesses and developers can utilize that data to be a part of development solutions to solve civic problems. The other thing is focus groups and just trying to be a part of dialogues like this, a global smart city summit. We have a few of these locally in the city of Toronto, but you’ve got to keep the dialogue going. The dialogue takes different forms. It may not be the big conference all the time; sometimes, it’s the smaller focus groups on a specific tactical area, but it’s a mindset that it has to be a two-way dialogue. Also, I can’t emphasize enough something I said before, you have to ensure connectivity. We’ve focus a lot on ensuring that we aren’t creating a digital divide but driving towards digital inclusion.

S&RC: What are some ways that the city drives digital inclusion?

RM: For us, one of the highlights of driving digital inclusion is the transformation of how we use our library spaces. We have 100 libraries in the city of Toronto, the largest library system in North America. Libraries have been about the sharing of information, its been about learning, but now we’ve turned that into digital literacy. Digital literacy means that you can get internet access at the library, you can get Wi-Fi, you can actually sign out Wi-Fi hot spots, you can use 3-D printing and you can have innovation labs. So what we’ve done to close the digital divide is make sure we have alternative spots in existing spaces where everyone has access to technology.

S&RC: Over the almost 5 years you’ve been CIO, how have you seen the city come closer to reaching its goals by leveraging data, IoT, what have you?

RM: We’ve been in the environmental sustainability business for quite some time in terms of increasing our green canopy and using building automation systems. In terms of net new solutions, I think it’s a matter of understanding the various pieces that we do have today, understanding that we’ve actually been in this business and continuing to adopt technologies across our various service domains, continuing to enable collaboration through data and through access. Our focus has been creating a culture of innovation, so we can think this way, reinventing services to drive operational efficiencies, drive service excellence, cost reduction and revenue opportunities. We are in a lot of pilot modes and in terms of technology, leading the way is our Toronto waterfront area, which is 800 hectares of space. 300 is park space but 500 is mixed-use between residential, commercial and retail, and that has open-access high speed fiber to every home and business network. The area has become a living lab. That has really been our showcase of smart cities and that’s why we’ve been able to attract companies. Remember the foundation - the broadband is already there, so now you can talk about what kind of smart solutions can go in there. And the way they’ve started out is by citizen engagement. Not showing off the products, but actually doing focus groups and dialogues to figure out what would benefit that company in that area.

S&RC: You mentioned a living lab and that seems like it’s a good way to capitalize on another suggestion I’ve heard a lot here, which is "make room to fail." It seems like having a controlled area where you can pilot a lot of technology and enable cities to experiment, which for a lot of cities that would be untenable if they were trying to roll out citywide. Would you say the Toronto waterfront has enabled you to try things that haven’t necessarily worked?

RM: I think we’ve got room to grow in that area. That’s where I came to have further discussions with the likes of cities like New York and Chicago. Chicago has done a good job specifically in terms of adhering to regulations and legislation and crating an open and competitive and transparent government. That can be challenging because you want to try things, you want to fail fast, but you also need to be fair and open. Chicago is a good example because they actually created a non-profit organization that somewhat becomes the clearing house of the projects that they pilot within the city’s environment.

S&RC: Have you tried a similar approach in Toronto?

RM: What we’ve done is through civic innovation. We were the recipient of the Bloomberg Civic Innovation Fund, which is a half-a-million U.S. dollars for three years, and that allows us to bring in the capacity through staffing without drawing on the tax base to set up a civic innovation office - a small team to start vetting some of these solutions. That gives a little bit of separation from myself that runs the day-to-day operations and the day-to-day delivery of all these solutions, but I’m part of the oversight for that to make sure that the things we are looking at and considering can actually work in our environment. We recently launched that civic innovation office in the last six months and that’s going to be our catalyst to do a little bit more fail fast.

S&RC: I want to go back to you mentioned regulations, do you deal with silos a lot with Toronto?

RM: Yes, it’s a big government, 44 divisions, 70+ agencies, boards and commissions,  so all of that makes up Toronto public service. Some of our boards and commissions are run by separate CEO’s and different mandates and even to some extent, legal separation and so we have silos. We try to close the silos by really fostering a culture of sharing data within the organization, across the various agencies, boards and commissions, and looking for, that’s why I categorize it as the OS approach to the internet of things and smart solutions is key for me because like I said literally we have entities that are separated so making sure we have ways of driving some integration in that complexity is important but it’s a challenge and we have to look at ways of overcoming that too.

S&RC: It’s good to know or maybe disheartening to know that even one of the most successful smart cities still deal with silos.

RM: Yes we do, that’s just a reality, right?

S&RC: Have you seen any models for trying to increase collaboration within government agencies that you appreciate or would like to try out? Or is it same across the board?

RM: I think what has helped us, specifically in Toronto, is our partnership with the academic institutions. That allows us to extract data and, to some extent, visioning some potential solutions and doing some pre-work, doing some analysis, utilizing some data and 3-D visualization, to position the vision to see what things could look like without jumping into the spotlight. Toronto is the largest city in Canada, fourth largest in North America, a mediacentric capital of Canada, and so it drives an element of conservatism because of the media focus on them. I think being able to work with our academic partners creates a healthy safe zone and we could build on that with industry partners, too.

S&RC: How would you characterize Toronto's Smart City approach that makes it stand out?

RM: I think Toronto has been really looking at smart cities beyond the implementation of sensors and technologies and even data, really looking at it as a framework to be a part of catalyzing the ICT industry (information, communication and technology).Toronto has some top universities and colleges, a tremendous talent pool. Toronto is the largest tech sector in Canada, third largest in North America, so it’s not just about the city implementing and realizing those benefits. It’s really about fostering and catalyzing some of the incubators, working with some of the Fortune 500 companies and creating this ecosystem with government, with small, medium and large tech companies, academia and special interest groups and, as a result, working together with the Toronto region Board of Trade, together creating the road map. I think that has been really good for Toronto because the technology companies are there, the talent is there and it’s about how you bring these things together to realize meaningful, evidence-based outcomes that benefit the city at large.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Overlay Init

Curated By Logo