Posted February 26th, 2015 by Jamie Hunter

Smart cities should put the power in the hands of the people, says U of T engineer Mark Fox

Mark Fox

For smart cities to thrive, Professor Mark Fox said citizens need to take more control—and technology can help (Photo: Paul Terefenko).

U of T Engineering’s Mark Fox (MIE) believes smart cities need smart citizens.

On Feb. 10, 2015, the industrial engineering professor spoke to a capacity crowd at the Twenty Toronto Street Conference Centre about what it means for a city to be a “smart city” and the role that citizens must take in order to meet their service needs.

Fox’s talk was part of the ongoing U of T in Your Neighbourhood lecture series.

What is a smart city?

The concept of the “smart city” is a widely discussed topic in academia, with no single definition.

But Fox said a common characteristic of most smart cities is that they adopt a city-centred view, where it is the city’s (municipal government) responsibility to provide the services, information and anything else they think its citizens need.

He cited Rio de Janeiro as one example. In 2010, Rio’s mayor enlisted IBM to build its Rio Operations Center—an urban command centre with a bank of large digital screens where more than 30 municipal and state departments, plus private utility and transportation companies, monitor the daily activity of the city and potential crisis situations, including traffic, major events and natural disasters.

Fox was one of four U of T engineers who recently returned from India, where he joined U of T president Meric Gertler in discussions with thought leaders and policy makers about the role universities play in the development of smart cities. Last year, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, committed to building 100 smart cities throughout the country.

The citizen perspective

According to the Ontario Ministry of Finance, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is projected to be the fastest growing region in the province, with its population increasing by more than 45 per cent to reach 9.4 million by 2041.

“Where are we going to put these people; how are we going to connect them; and how are we going to make Toronto liveable?” Fox asked.

He said that cities should be smart in trying to do their best to provide us with the appropriate services, information and governance.

“But I believe we need to take a citizen perspective,” Fox said. “Not to replace a city perspective, but another perspective to add on to everything that we are doing.”

A citizen-centric perspective to the smart city vision puts the power in the hands of the people: they choose what services they want to use and participate in government by discovering the information and influencing municipal change.

“We just can’t leave it in the hands of the city to tell us how to do those things,” Fox said. “We have to do some of the heavy lifting.”

It is already happening: through smartphones, apps and cloud computing, citizens are taking control of their lives.

Fox said Uber, the popular mobile-app-based transportation network, is an example of the citizen-perspective approach to the smart city. The app informs the user where all of its taxis and rideshare vehicles are in relation to a user’s location.

He said the Uber of the future, ideally, would route and re-route individuals using various modes of travel—cars, bikes, private and public transportation—based on service availability and location.

Smart citizens need help, too

While citizens are gaining access to more information and the ability to control their urban environments, Fox questioned whether we actually have the capacity to manage it.

“We need something more to turn us into smart citizens,” he said. “We need something that’s going to help us deal with the volume of information flowing at us and the complex decisions we’re going to have to make. And that’s where intelligent agents and artificial intelligence comes in to play.”

Take Siri, Apple’s “personal assistant” for iOS mobile devices, which Fox referenced as a starting point for intelligent agents. At the core of Siri is artificial intelligence technology: speech recognition, domain or common-sense knowledge, planning capabilities—it’s all in there, in a device that fits inside of your pocket.

In the mid-1970s, Fox was a member of team that produced the first successful speech understanding system. The computer was huge—it filled a small room—had a vocabulary of about 100 words, performed a single task and was trained to recognize the speech of one person.

“We dreamed about this 40 years ago,” he said. “Today, it’s a reality.”