National Infrastructure Summit 2012, Day 1: City Smarter, Not Harder

Last year’s summit, according to the organizers, was about analyzing the scope of the infrastructure problem; estimates, including the one in the IBM Smarter Cities presentation today, range from $300 to $400 billion. For perspective’s sake, that number is roughly twenty times the budget of the city of Toronto alone. So cities looking to maintain, fix, or replace existing infrastructure while also ensuring that they have the funding (or “capital,” eghguhgh) available to equip new developments with efficient and enduring infrastructure must find radical new ways to think about doing that. “Innovation,” the business types call it, and it’s the focus of this year’s National Infrastructure Summit.

While a big chunk of the “innovation” comes from ways to source funding – more on that in a bit – another substantial focus of the summit is on data. Specifically, big data, the kinds of interlocked and complicated sets of data that make up the backbone of modern infrastructure. Everything from city libraries to water and power grids comes with data and statistics that mesh together to form pictures of communities and cities that politicians, bureaucrats, and planners have to navigate in order to provide effective services. Finding ways to turn that complex nest of information from noise into signal is high on the priority list.

Part of the presentation from IBM’s delegates focused, for example, on the Washington, D.C., water system. The problems the District of Columbia faced – aging pipes, rising costs, decreasing civic revenue – should sound all too familiar to anyone who’s watched municipal politics in any city, ever. But using database collation technology – some of which was on display out on the vendor booth floor, and all of which almost went over my head (I’m going to head back tomorrow or Wednesday and try to get it explained to me in terms an idiot can understand) – D.C. forwent the reactive approach to fixing their infrastructure, instead using data to predict usage and anomalies, as well as sharpening the algorithms by which they schedule maintenance and improvements.

Oh, and they used the data of their maintenance workers’ routes to initiate something called “spatial scheduling,” where workers who are already in the neighbourhood anyway check in on infrastructure and facilities, rather than hauling someone out for a special trip, thus maximizing the time and energy of their employees.

There are more examples on IBM’s Smarter Cities page, of course. And they’re the sort of public-private partnership – a collaboration between smart, commercially employed thinkers and public employees whose job is focused on making the best of limited municipal resources – that it’s easy to get behind.

The other kind of public-private partnership – one that’s heavily emphasized during the NIS – is a financial one, and it’s both tediously convoluted and sort of frightening. But Paul Dechene understands it better than I do, and he’s blogging a panel tomorrow featuring CUPE president Paul Moist (who at 1 p.m. today held a press conference to announce the release of a CUPE-sponsored study by University of Manitoba economist John Loxley that counters the hoo-rah attitude toward P3s so prevalent here at the NIS), so I’ll let him tackle that. It is, however, the main way that many municipalities are looking to fund infrastructure projects. No surprise there, given that the federal government has tied so much of its municipal infrastructure grants to P3s – $1.2 billion annually – that, in 2009, it created a Crown corporation for the express purpose of exploring and promoting P3s.

God, wasn’t this supposed to be a blog entry? I’ll keep it short: there are some ideas floating around that, at least, make the idea of P3s for infrastructure projects a little more palatable. One idea that’s been in practice for a long time is a municipal finance authority like they have in BC. Since the 1970s, British Columbian municipalities have had the power, thanks to a legislative act, to pool their resources together and negotiate for funding through one large entity. According to Jim Craven, who spent years with the MFA in BC and now does consulting work for British Columbia municipalities, the united municipalities have the clout to ensure fairer funding agreements. Down the line, this means that revenues from infrastructure don’t go to paying back exorbitant loans; instead, they turn into profits for the municipal finance authority and are translated into dividends paid out to the communities.

Regina city councillor Mike O’Donnell was at the panel discussing financing, and in an interview after the panel, he seemed interested in trying to find a way to make something like that work in Saskatchewan.

“We are a very diverse province, and I think sometimes we don’t co-operate enough,” he said. “…What I really took away from the presentation is that co-operation has many benefits. Co-operation financially can, in fact, be extended to the very smallest areas of the province. And for someone like me, it’s very worth pursuing.”

That’s all for me, folks, and probably all for you, too; check back tomorrow for a couple of soundbites from mayoral candidates Marian Donnelly and Michael Fougere, as well as an interview with Jennifer Barrett and Christopher Miles Kailing, the winners of the Greenfield Design Prize portion of the City of Regina’s Morph My City competition. I promise they’ll be shorter than this.

Author: John Cameron

John Cameron is a freelance journalist and occasional writer from Regina, Saskatchewan. He was the editor-in-chief of the Carillon, the University of Regina student newspaper, from 2010 to 2012. You can find more of his work in the Trash folder of several prominent national magazine editors' inboxes.