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Smart Cities Challenge deadline looms; you have questions, we have answers

On February 22, 2018 in Burnaby, the BC Chapter of the Urban Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) met for a seminar about how communities are using geographic information system (GIS) technologies to work smarter not harder.

They also came to hear Gerard Peets, Director General of Infrastructure Canada, talk about the Smart Cities Challenge (Challenge). As the Industry Manager for Municipal Solutions at Esri Canada, I asked Mr. Peets to answer some of the most frequent questions I’ve been asked by municipalities across the country and provide some insights on how communities can participate in the Challenge.

Before we start with the interview questions, let’s review the details about the Challenge.

The Smart Cities Challenge competition is open to all communities across Canada: big or small, municipal, local, regional or Indigenous, as single organizations or in a consortium-type group. Communities are asked to submit their best ideas to use data and connected technology to realize meaningful outcomes for residents.

Applications are due by April 24, 2018.  The prizes include:

  • One prize of up to $50 million open to all communities, regardless of population;
  • Two prizes of up to $10 million open to all communities with populations under 500,000 people; and
  • One prize of up to $5 million open to all communities with populations under 30,000 people.

[Interview with Gerard Peets]

Q: Why did the government develop the Challenge?

A: There are a lot of times when the Government uses its spending power to shape the way the economy or civil society works in very targeted ways.  But our country is faced with many competing priorities and we face challenges at all levels of government, many we’ve never faced before; and we simply can’t expect to have all the answers.

Across Canada, communities are dealing with similar issues, whether it’s around health, mobility, safety and security, livability, the environment, inclusion or economic opportunity.

So, rather than taking a top-down approach to deciding on priorities, we’ve done the reverse with the Smart Cities Challenge:  we’ve cast the net wide. We are asking communities for their ideas on what the most important issues facing their residents are. That’s really the key element we’re looking for in the application -- we’re calling it the “Challenge Statement” -- and it will count for the majority of the evaluation.  Those selected as finalists will receive federal support to flesh out solutions that address those specific priority areas identified in their Challenge Statement.

By leaving things open to communities, we will also gain valuable insight from the applications we receive.  For example, we will be able to see the percentage of communities that are focused on similar challenges, such as homelessness, crime reduction, mitigating weather event incidents or social inclusion. It will identify the big common themes and help us inform how we develop federal policy and programs in the future.

Q: Are you looking for the one, single big idea or solution?

A: No. We expect that communities will come up with a number of, maybe 10, contributing ideas or solutions that contribute to solving a specific challenge.

We’re asking people to take some risks – to try things that might be new, untested.  So we need to be able to deal with setbacks if things don’t work out perfectly as planned.  If a community only had one solution and it turned out not to work, what then? If, on the other hand, they had, 10 different ideas to approach the Challenge Statement from different angles, they might do small-scale pilots on each one of them, with 7 of them moving to the next stage. It’s a positive thing to have a lot of ideas.

Should these ideas be unified in terms of their contribution to achieving the Challenge Statement? They absolutely should be, and that’s something our jury will be looking for.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: Sure. Let’s assume a Challenge Statement around the issue of social inclusion within the community. There might not be one single data or connected technology solution that will fully address that challenge. It will take several different initiatives to address various groups of individuals and their needs. So, the Smart Cities Challenge proposal might encompass several solutions, touching various aspects of community life – language of service delivery online, culturally relevant education and training, online community forums, etc. – which would involve different actors and attack the issue from different perspectives.   Ultimately, they would all be part of a plan that would contribute to the shared goal of improving social inclusion.

Q: You’re limiting the prizes to 4 communities…why not offer more but smaller prizes?

A: We want communities of all sizes from coast to coast to coast to be involved.  So we wanted prize sizes that would be meaningful and relevant to communities of different sizes, giving them a strong incentive to participate. At the same time, we didn’t want prize sizes to be of such small amounts that the solutions put forward would lack ambition.

We realize that a large city has more resources, even for developing a proposal, than a smaller community.  We’ve set up the program to encourage public engagement and pulling in ideas at the grassroots level – something that anyone can do, large or small.  We think this is working: we are hearing that many small communities are in the process already.

Also, we wanted to address the capacity issue head on.  If you’re one of up to 20 selected as finalists, you get a grant of $250,000, which will be used to develop the final proposal.  So small communities will be able to use that funding to help them with the more detailed project design.

Q: Can communities partner with others?

A: Yes, they can.  I am aware of several consortium-type groups that have joined on a single challenge.  Since we’re looking for local impact, it isn’t automatically a better idea to partner. Communities should ensure that, in joining forces, their Challenge Statement is truly aligned and doesn’t diminish the focus for each community achieving on local impact, because that is what our Jury will be looking for.

Q: This program will be continuing for 11 years?

A: We have until 2026/27 -- a total of $300 million over 10 years has been allocated, which will enable us to run 3 full competitions).  Anyone familiar with government programming will appreciate that this amount of runway is actually a very rare and positive thing. It gives us an opportunity to learn and modify future programs.

We haven’t identified what the next competition in the Challenge will look like but you will see on this application form, we’re asking organizations to identify the broad priorities of their community, as well as to identify and rank their technology needs.  We’re gathering in that data so we will be able to improve how we develop and execute future programs, and identify where the challenges and stumbling blocks were in this initial round.

Q: What is the single most important message you have for communities across Canada?

A: Every community with big ambition, if they haven’t already, should consider preparing a submission.  There are challenges they face and this program is the ideal vehicle to help them begin to solve them.


This was an insightful conversation, which I know helped clarify questions and encourage the attendees to be involved in the Challenge. 

The Canadian Smart Cities Challenge aligns with the URISA BC message around working smarter and not harder and with Esri Canada’s Smart Communities initiatives.  In fact, Alex Miller recently wrote an article discussing 'How new technology can build smart cities across Canada'.

It also highlights what I think of as the true spirit of Canadians.  A spirit that when faced with any challenge, we come together with determination, welcoming new approaches and ideas, encouraging collaboration so we can accomplish more together, faster - and ultimately succeed together.

If your community is in the process of completing your Smart Cities Challenge submission  and haven’t already engaged with Esri Canada but would like our help, I invite you to leave a comment below or contact me at and we’ll be happy to assist you.