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St. Albert looks for federal smart-city funding

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St. Albert’s smart-city initiatives are on the national radar after Coun. Cathy Heron addressed a parliamentary committee this week, and she’s hopeful more funding could be on the way. Heron, accompanied by smart city manager Travis Peter, spoke Thursday morning with members of the federal standing committee on transport, infrastructure and communities on behalf of the city and of the Alberta Smart City Alliance.She made a pitch for the federal government to find ways to promote digital connectedness from coast to coast, to incentivize the development of regional smart-city strategies, and to establish a long-term dedicated funding model. “I think there is potentially some money the federal government will dedicate toward this kind of initiative,” she said.

Smart city is a philosophy about integrating communication and information technologies into a city’s assets to improve efficiency and quality of life for residents. Specific projects in St. Albert include installing intelligent transportation systems to optimize travel along St. Albert Trail, integrating controls and sensors to monitor the city’s assets in real-time, and expanding the high-speed fibre network. Heron said the cost of the trip was minimal, as the Government of Canada picked up the tab, but the benefits are substantial. First and foremost, she pointed to the recognition of St. Albert as a smart city as a way to put the city on the map, and also to attract economic development opportunities.

She said while she couldn’t be specific about details, the city’s economic development department is currently working with people who want to invest in the city because of this kind of recognition. “It’s definitely 100 per cent attributable to our recognition as a smart city,” she said. “That’s exciting.”In her comments to the committee, Heron highlighted three challenges hindering more widespread adoption of smart-city initiatives: lack of digital infrastructure in both rural and urban areas; inconsistent collaboration and partnership models in an environment where smaller communities are unable to make these changes on their own; and the lack of a national policy and dedicated funding to be able to pursue smart-city initiatives when private industry may be hesitant to invest.

Heron offered three recommendations to address those challenges. First, she said Canada’s digital strategy should be amended to focus on getting ready for a digital economy, with ubiquitous connectivity, which would recognize the needs of communities of all sizes. Second, she said the federal government could do more to provide incentives for regional strategies, which would focus on solving local problems. Third, she said there needs to be a dedicated funding stream, further to the federal gas tax grants municipalities already get, in order for municipalities to be able to address the existing capacity and infrastructure problems. “I don’t want to be using the gas tax money for smart city initiatives, because it just takes away from other core infrastructure,” she said.

Heron said many of the committee members were very interested in what she had to say as an elected official representing a municipality rather than an academic, which they had heard a lot from throughout this consultation. “They really wanted to hear the municipal perspective,” she said. “I was really pleased.” The committee’s work on smart cities will help to inform the federal government’s Smart Cities Challenge, which was announced in late 2016. Modelled after a similar competition in the United States, it is intended to encourage cities to develop smart-city plans in collaboration with citizens and businesses. Further details are expected this year.

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