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Montreal named Intelligent Community of the Year

Montreal named Intelligent Community of the Year

The title of Intelligent Community of the Year has returned to Canada this year, after Columbus Ohio earned the Intelligent Community Forum's highest accolade in 2015. With a history of innovation, the City of Montreal has made smart city planning a central priority since launching its new Smart and Digital City Strategy in 2014. Montreal's efforts to build a culture of continued learning, innovation and creativity, supported by the latest technology, set the city of 1.6 million people apart from the other six communities in ICF's Top7. PSD spoke with Harout Chitilian, Montreal City Councillor for Bordeaux-Cartierville, and ICF Co-Founder John Jung, about how Montreal became the world's most intelligent community.

The Top7 of 2016

  • Hsinchu County, Taiwan
  • Surrey, Canada
  • Montreal, Canada
  • Whanganui, New Zealand
  • Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany
  • Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
  • New Taipei City, Taiwan



The City of Montreal experienced significant economic turmoil in the 1980s with the decline of heavy industry. Embracing ICT, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, and clean tech as new economic cornerstones, Montreal propelled itself down a path of innovation. More recently, Montreal has suffered through a string of corruption scandals, forcing the city to become a trailblazer in municipal transparency. In your experience as Co-Founder of ICF, would you say that smart cities are borne out of necessity, or is it more commonly a proactive choice by community leaders to adopt smart city strategies?

Those communities that have some of the best solutions [to challenges] have gone from crisis to success. Others use that inspiration to work through their own problems. If you look at the history of ICF, a part of the competition has always been about benchmarking and sharing information. Our model isn't just about highlighting the best technologies, and it's not just a beauty contest. We use the [Intelligent Community] competition for some serious urban planning, economic development, and to understand how a community works so that other communities around the world can be inspired to utilize those same techniques or similar techniques to address their own challenges. This isn't an app competition - it's a serious economic development endeavour. Today's big data gives communities the ability to measure themselves and make evidence-based decisions. But cities still have to take a broader look at themselves and ask "what are our challenges?"

Eindhoven, Holland, for instance, had a serious crisis: their major employer, Philips, moved their head office to Amsterdam because there weren't able to get the talent they needed in Eindhoven. So the community completely changed the way they operated. They needed to get on the world stage and promote a new direction for their community - ICF helped share that message.

Whanganui, one of our Top7 Intelligent Communities in 2016, credits ICF with helping them address their crisis of a declining population. The community was being told by New Zealand economists that a zombie town like Whanganui should fold up and move its population into bigger centres. Whanganui was forgotten years ago when a new rail line bypassed their community, and now the new form of mobility - broadband - was going to be a key answer to keeping their businesses and attracting new ones. That's exactly what they did, and they did it without waiting for big government to help. They bootstrapped it and did it all on their own.


Photo Credit: Georgwille

In this year's competition, it seems like there was less of a focus on technology and broadband connectivity than in past years. Montreal's winning bid places a greater emphasis on education.

Every year we have a new theme. This year it was "Revolution to Renaissance." The use of ICT in good governance and urban planning is the revolution piece, and then looking at how you can take the new applications of technology to create a better community is the renaissance. You're still leveraging ICT, but when you have smart people and smart technologies, you have to ask "how do you bring it to the next level?" We're talking about the ability of a community to embrace technology and create cultural opportunities. Bringing revolution to renaissance was what really brought Montreal over the edge to win this year. Their Youth Fusion movement, their various applications of technology in their Innovation District, their Quartier des Spectacles, an arts and entertainment district where they apply technology at night with light shows, all demonstrated to us that Montreal had a real understanding of this theme.


Quartier des Spectacles

This was Montreal's first year in the ICF Top7. Is it rare for the new kid on the block to win?

There is no real rule of thumb. We've had cities in the past go straight from entering the competition to winning. Once you hit the Top7 you have a one in seven chance of winning. There were some other cities that came pretty close to winning, but Montreal edged them out. We like to really promote the Top7 because in their own regions they are the benchmark standard. Next year's theme is "The Internet of Cities" which will talk about taking the Internet of Things (IoT) to the next level for cities.

Was there one program or element of Montreal's bid that stood out for you?

Youth Fusion is trying to target youth that are at risk of dropping out of school. The program encourages them to go on to university by helping students work through their issues in a stimulating way, with design and technology. It also provides work for university students and it's in partnership with local businesses that get involved. They generate $16 in social value for each dollar invested. It's creating a roadmap for youth that would have otherwise dropped out of school.

Youth Fusion

An award-winning charity, supported by the City of Montreal that helps to reduce school dropout rates in the Montreal area. Youth Fusion hires local university students and recent graduates to engage youth in elementary and high schools through unique learning inside and outside the classroom. The program attracts more than 5,000 students each year.


Do you have any advice for smaller communities just getting started with a smart city agenda?

It's really important for smaller communities to develop a plan. They have limited resources and so there needs to be a champion or a group that gets together to drive planning. Communities like Mitchell, South Dakota and Stratford, Ontario have taken it upon themselves to build capacity by aggregating demand in other communities around them to create their own way of utilizing technology. You might try to attract a branch of a university or college to your area or engage youth in your community by setting up community space in a library as a "maker space." Find out what the strengths of your community are and then build on those. These are basic, good urban planning practices leveraged by the technology of today. Don't try to become something you're not. Find your advantage and leverage technology to support it.

Montreal by the numbers

  • Population: 1.6 million
  • Broadband availability: 100%
  • Internet penetration rate: 86%
  • Extent of free Wi-Fi in core: 17 square km
  • Number of students that earned a degree in Montreal between 1998 and 2008: 415,000*
  • *Montreal's universities graduate more students from higher education than any other Canadian city



Montreal is now the fourth Canadian city to claim the top prize in the Intelligent Community Forum competition. What does this win mean for Montreal?

We're always pushing the limits and this prize for us is a shot in the arm going forward to keep pushing.

John Jung of ICF spoke in particular about the impact of your Youth Fusion program and how it can become a model for other communities around the world. Where did the idea for the program come from?

Youth Fusion was initiated by someone in civic society and the City, very early on, decided to fund it because we saw it as a great tool to keep kids from dropping out of school. It's a very dynamic program where university students work closely with kids in high risk neighbourhoods to make sure they stay in school. Statistics show that dropping out of school costs the community a lot of money through the delivery of services. It's about working proactively to keep kids in school. They use different areas of focus and interest, like fashion, technology, and social development to keep kids interested in school and to give every single one of them a voice. Youth Fusion receives close to $100,000 per year in funding from our economic development department and they have also recently received $6 million from the Azrieli Foundation to help spread this model across Canada.

What other elements of your smart city strategy did you highlight in your ICF bid?

The number one component of our strategy is the human capital index. We have a city that has a large number of creative industries and people. We have a large number of university students. We have a large number of engaged citizens. So what we put forward in this candidacy was a story of how these creative industries have reinvented themselves. We're not a one trick pony in Montreal. We don't just have video games. We have accelerators pumping out products in all types of industries. We have 161 community initiated projects that are ongoing and making the city better. From the human capital index perspective, all of these initiatives began from the start-up culture.

We also have strong political leadership in Montreal. We have an administration in place, starting with the Mayor, who has clearly identified the community as a partner in achieving a lot of the great things that we're doing. You also have concrete gestures such as the creation of a Smart City Office in the City of Montreal that works closely with the community, which works closely with the different departments to deliver services to residents.

Did it take time to build buy-in at the political level for your smart city strategy?

We had our talking points during the 2013 campaign. The City was going through a rough time. We had three mayors in the span of four years and we had a public inquiry into the corruption scandal around the construction industry. There was a lot of negative news around the city. But during the campaign one of the things that united almost everyone unanimously was the coming together around the digital revolution. All of the candidates were pushing a platform with that same concept. So when the Mayor was elected he didn't need to do much convincing because everyone was on the same page to shift the focus and make digital a priority. That's when we started to put the pieces together, that's when we started engaging with the community, that's when we adopted an open data policy, and that's when we started organizing community challenges to solve our issues. All of this started post-election and I think most of the community and most of the politicians have been on board since day one.

PSD launched the Open Cities Index in 2015 with Montreal ranking 10th in Canada for its open data initiative. How important is open data to your larger smart city initiative?

It's one of the building blocks. Our three founding principles are openness/transparency, innovation, and engagement. You have to double down on hiring the best people, enabling the private sector, and enabling your universities. All of this is part of the DNA of our overall strategy. Part of the transparency principle is our very ambitious delivery schedule to put in place a new open data policy, which is to be "Open by Default." We've launched multiple platforms for showing performance indicators for the city, for mining the contracts at the City of Montreal, to see everything that has to do with budgeting, and we've freed up snow removal data and transport data. We've also recently got the police force to embark on the open data journey by releasing crime data.

What's next for Montreal's smart city initiative?

We have to focus on three elements. First and foremost, we have a great opportunity now, since there hasn't been a time in recent memory that we've been so together in Montreal, to push forward an ambitious agenda. We can't stop now just because we got the top prize. We need to keep moving forward to deliver on our promises. Second, we need to create mechanisms to make our citizen approach - supporting citizen-driven projects - systemic throughout the City's departments. We must spread the intelligent community culture everywhere inside the city and inside of our organization. Lastly we must celebrate success. In Canada, we're very humble. We need to get on the international stage and say "look at what we've done and look at what we want to do." We need to try to attract the best talent from overseas and attract more capital to invest in Canada, and that's a challenge on its own. Out west, you have innovation in Vancouver and Calgary. In Ontario, you have Waterloo as a tech and innovation hub. You have Toronto, which was recognized by ICF in 2014 as the Intelligent Community of the Year. And let's not forget that you also have Winnipeg and Surrey in the Top7 this year. From one coast to another, we have Canadian cities innovating and engaging with their communities.


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