Why Social Impact Leaders Must Understand Smart Cities

Understanding the social impact potential — and limits — of smart cities.

Why It Matters

There are many smart city initiatives that you may or may not recognize. But smart city initiatives are worth engaging, even if your organization is not involved in the tech sector.

Thanks to the federal government’s Smart Cities Challenge, launched in early 2018, and, of course, the requisite sales teams and lobbyists from tech companies, there is a very good chance that — if you’re based in Canada — your local municipality is involved in a recent or ongoing effort to become a smart city.

The government received 130 applications from rural and small towns, major metropolises, and Indigenous communities in response to its Smart Cities Challenge; many were based on existing smart city initiatives that were already funded and underway.

Yet, despite the national scope of this challenge, the term “smart cities” is still ambiguous and abstract to most people.

It may be just another empty tech-industry buzzword to you, or it may be overused in your professional circles to the point of being meaningless. Unfortunately, municipalities’ efforts to engage their residents or civil society organizations and involve them in their plans and proposals have not changed that perception in a material way.

What’s more, not every city has a high-profile project like Sidewalk Labs in Toronto to raise awareness and catalyze discussion in the media, within academia, and among residents.

However, every city is likely working on something that could be categorized under the smart city umbrella.

Smart city projects come in all sizes, scales, and scopes.

Some initiatives seem benign and borderline boring, such as smart meters and data dashboards that help building managers and utilities reduce energy consumption, or others that provide public Wi-Fi networks from lampposts and sidewalk kiosks.

Others seem obvious and overdue: sensors that monitor traffic and synchronize traffic lights, or sensors that alert engineers when bridges and other civic infrastructure require maintenance (the “Internet of Things” is a key phrase to watch for in this category).

Some seem only relevant to computer geeks, such as open data portals and crowdsourced maps. Others appear reasonable, if a bit gimmicky: An official city app that will be a one-stop resource for residents seeking information, services, or a recourse to a complaint or issue.

There are others that are more futuristic: rewiring our streets for autonomous vehicles, or whatever Google’s smart city sister company is prototyping.

If you’re tempted to discount your perspectives because you don’t have a technology background, you’re not alone. However, it’s important to remember that virtually all smart city efforts are uncharted territory for all parties involved—even for Sidewalk Labs.

Put another way: You don’t need to know how to write code to begin to understand the concerns around everything from data privacy, to transparency, to governance.

While these may seem like big city problems, remember that Canada’s biggest city and its smallest rural townships share the same DNA in the eyes of our constitution: a complete lack of jurisdictional powers relative to the provinces in which they reside.

Property taxes remain the primary source of revenue for municipalities, and politicians are loathe to raise it above rates of inflation. This dynamic guarantees that major civic infrastructure projects will be impossible without funding from the other two orders of government.

Even when the stars align and projects are green-lit, governments tend towards the use of public-private partnerships (P3s) to implement and deliver large-scale projects.

Faced with rising costs, constrained budgets, and limited tools for raising revenue, municipalities will continue to be natural customers for P3s that promise more efficient delivery of public and social services under the guise of smart city technologies.

All to say: These smart city dilemmas are coming to a city or town near you.


The “what” of smart cities may fall outside of your organizational mandate, but social impact sector leaders are uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role in the “how.”


Few entities have the ability to be the neutral intermediary between the business, social, and civic spheres as those that have cultivated trusted relationships with corporate donors, government funders or regulators, advocates and activists from civil society, and frontline workers who understand the issues at hand from the perspective of the populations they serve.

Given the tech-centric nature of smart cities, it is especially important for social mission organizations to act as a convenor, bridge-builder, and translator between companies, governments, and residents, and to ensure that people and communities maximize the “care side” of the equation.