MaRS’ Urban Mobility Design Camp explores why Toronto is well-positioned to become a smart city

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A place like the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto is no stranger to hosting events that throw the word “innovation” around like it’s a football. That’s not always a bad thing – sometimes you have to repeat something a hundred times before it sinks in – but it can feel less impactful when it seems like everyone is talking, but not doing much else.

The Urban Design Camp, hosted by MaRS in partnership with Uber, IBI Group, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), and others, aims to change that narrative.

The two-day camp is focused on bringing service providers, private sector actors, and public sector stakeholders into the room “with a goal to produce testable options to roll out in the near future.”

The kickoff was keynoted by Raquel Urtasun, the head of advanced technologies at Uber and an associate professor at the University of Toronto, and Josh Colle, a Toronto city councillor and chair of the TTC, both addressed the need for connectedness, albeit in different ways.

Where Urtasun focused on technology, Colle focused on process and learning from history. As it turns out, all are crucial to one another.

Canadian talent

“I chose to call Toronto my home, and did not want to move to the States,” recalled Urtasun.

In the not-too-distant past, this would have meant her career in artificial intelligence was all but over.

Toronto is a pioneering city of artificial intelligence in the world, but “the talent kept leaving – often for the USA.”

While the University of Toronto took on its own initiatives to combat brain drain of researchers who studied advanced technologies, Urtasun took a more practical approach, founding the Vector Institute for artificial intelligence. This, she says, gives a new home to AI research in the heart of Toronto, helping to ensure its survival.

More than just survive, however, Uber and Google came knocking on Toronto’s door because of its burgeoning AI scene. Uber has chosen Toronto as a core geographic hub of its artificial experiments, in no small part due to our history as AI founders, but also to our current, increasingly successful, efforts to reclaim the amazing talent we had.

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Google is trying to enter Toronto in a big way, through its urban-focused subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, to take over a 12-acre stretch of land on the waterfront to build a connected city.

All of this can be accomplished through Toronto’s growing talent networks. People often say that a company, or city, is only as good as its people. If this is true, then Toronto is on a strong trajectory in both the private and public sector.

Studies about the relative wages and cost of living in Toronto versus Silicon Valley — and the obvious political elephant in the room — have caused more and more intelligent minds to see Canada, and Toronto, as a viable and strong career option.

When this happens, a natural pull effect occurs; smart people want to work with other smart people. So if smart people come to Toronto, you know what comes next – more smart people. For those smart people already in Toronto, their choice to defy current tides and stay here instead of moving to the US is one more pull for the brightest global minds to come, and stay, in Toronto.

All this brings more people together, building our talent ecosystem in ways we can only dream of right now.

Canadian technology

“The TTC was founded almost 100 years ago to bring private bus services, streetcar lines, and other transportation providers under one roof,” explained Colle. “This is what is happening now with 21st century technology in the mobility and transportation industries.”

Far more than just offering choice, consumers want integration, says Colle. They want to merge their commutes with ‘multi-modal transport,’ a fancy way of saying you walk, take the train, take the streetcar, and maybe even take an Uber in the same commute.

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Learning from the operational shifts of the past can give a pathway to the technological changes for the future. When the TTC was developed, it brought disparate systems under one organization. While it’s no longer necessary to make all transit options operate under one company, technology can be the “one roof” that provides a seamless user experience in the mobility sector through integrations of payment systems, operations systems, and back-end technologies.

Beyond just making business and pleasure commutes more seamless, however, technology such as artificial intelligence and self-driving cars increases access to mobility for the elderly, people with disabilities, and young people – all vulnerable populations that have limited mobility when compared to their middle-aged, able-bodied, working peers.

When these vulnerable populations are more mobile, it raises the quality of life for everyone, as primary caregivers also have more access to mobility and face a lesser burden of care as their loved ones become more independent.

True to the motto of doing well by doing good, technology has an opportunity to take the consolidating benefits seen from the last century one step further: into building a more inclusive society.

Canada’s time

There’s much debate about whether Canada has hit an inflection point in our growth on the global scale – and if we have, what the right next step is.

Some say that Canada is too small a market, and that we still need the United States. Others suggest that our success is temporary, based on inflated demand from global turmoil and Canada’s relative peace.

While both of these reasons are valid thoughts and there’s evidence to suggest both, the speakers at this event provided a different thought: so what?

IBI Group presented a lightning talk on the move to connected cities, and used New York City as an example of the great work they are doing.

But here’s the kicker: New York City was a test project.

With a city as big as New York City, it’s nearly impossible to create brand new solutions that will immediately scale across the whole town. However, testing a small dynamic in a city that size can offer huge insight into, for instance, an entire city solution for a city the size of Toronto.

Looking at the solutions themselves – connected cities and technology facilitating smooth operations and broader inclusion – it does not matter if the wave that gets us this technology is only temporary.

Once it’s there, we reap the benefits for a long time to come, because the infrastructure being built today is made with the future in mind — a mindset that was present, but ill-informed, during our last major infrastructure development period during the early-mid 20th century.

Of course, if we don’t continue to focus on guiding that scale properly, we will end up right back in the same position we are today, in 50 years. However, even with a temporary wave to get us these changes, a cooling of political climate will not take away the massive global headway we gain by building scalable, integrated infrastructure.

Article photos credit: Alex Foster-Roman

Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Toronto-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 100 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios or send an email to stefan.palios@gmail.com.