Lessons learned from developing the Ethical Smart City Framework.

Municipalities are committed to addressing the challenges within their community.


As cities continue to attract people and talent, they see the creation and interaction of problems and solutions. The challenges that Smart Cities face today are the cascading impact of disruptors that manifest globally. Even with the use of technology, Smart Cities are struggling to find ways to respond to global disruptors such as climate change, mass migration and pandemics, which are exposing vulnerabilities across cities and communities. These disruptors are global phenomena that require a coordinated and holistic response from governments around the world. The urgency to embed technology into products, services and infrastructure within Smart Cities comes from the need to be prepared to respond to these systemic challenges. 

Climate change is a global disruptor because it plays a fundamental role in how cities are designed, built and experienced.  From streets, public spaces and transportation systems, different infrastructural aspects of a city are created to respond to the climate. Migration and movement between places have been connected with the idea of evolution for the longest time. In fact, migration and immigration have been drivers of population growth in Canada for decades. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how connected the world and global economy is, placing the human population in a uniquely vulnerable situation.

Globally, cities have begun to realize that the challenges they experience are often connected by visible and invisible threads such as rapid population growth and urbanization. These result in a need for more efficient infrastructure and resources to help solve the challenges associated with these disruptors. 

The large scale impact of these  global disruptors makes it harder to control them with one specific solution and often requires coordinated, strategic and holistic solutions between governments and across borders. While it is difficult for cities to address the impact they endure from the global disruptors, they are also undeniably resilient and are the epicenters of innovation. Smart Cities can act as our “collective conscience” and use technological advancements and resourcefulness to co-create resilient and sustainable solutions to address these challenges.

I serve at the pleasure of the taxpayer in the city of Stratford and our constituency has an obligation to know what we’re doing and why it’s important to them.

Joani Gerber, Chief Executive Officer, Stratford Economic Enterprise Development Corporation, City of Stratford



Municipalities are aware of the role of technology in Smart City projects, but need more guidance and understanding to leverage them better.


Smart Cities are characterized by a faith in the prowess of technology and innovation. This faith coupled with the ubiquitous failures of design, implementation and administration of cities which are not properly equipped with technology has driven the Smart City movement. In a Smart City project, technology is often used as the primary lens through which city challenges are identified and addressed. They are typically built around using Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to engage communities, to deliver city services and to enhance urban systems.

The use of technology has created solutions for challenges such as mass migration, climate change and pandemics with varying degrees of success. However, it has also created a new set of problems in its wake, such as concerns around the ownership, control and monetization of data. Smart Cities often tend to implement technology solutions, without considering their future or cross-domain implications. As Nehal El-Hadi, Ph.D. Planning and Editor In Chief at Studio Magazine, stated during a guest lecture on Ethical Smart Cities at the IwB, “the challenges of today are as a result of the design solutions of yesterday”. 

Technology is equal measures disruptor and enabler. If used without the right intentions, technology can not only exacerbate existing issues or cause long-term problems, but also shift the focus from the right challenges. Since cities are the epicenter of innovation and innovation is strengthened when backed by the right intentions, technology alone is not enough to solve these challenges. For a city to address its underlying challenges, it must start from the bottom-up—know the values of its people, understand their challenges and use technology as an enabler in solving these challenges. Cities that use technology for technology’s sake often put ethical values of their communities, such as privacy, safety and sustainability, at risk.

The area that I worry about most as Mayor is automation and artificial intelligence and the whole array of jobs that are going to be lost as a result of that process. I don’t know where the replacement for that is. And, if that holds true, we’re going to have a lot of people unemployed who will need support to keep a decent standard of living.  With more people at the margins is going to cause nothing but social unrest – something we’re already seeing the evidence for.

Fred Eisenberger, Mayor, City of Hamilton

Municipalities believe ethics are critical to cities, but have not established how to champion them in their Smart City projects.


Municipalities understand that ethics are important to cities and Smart City projects, especially because community values are often threatened as a result of using technology to solve challenges. The elements of the Ethical Smart City Framework-values, technology and challenges-were derived from this insight. Although Smart City projects set out to solve challenges such as those arising from global disruptors, it is often done with an emphasis on technology. If used without the right intentions, ethical values, such as privacy, sustainability and safety, among others, could be threatened in the processes of designing and implementing these projects. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the world saw how values could be threatened or upheld while using technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data to preempt and prepare for the challenges associated with reopening the cities and businesses. AI and Big Data proved useful in tackling challenges within healthcare systems in cities around the world.

At the beginning stages of the pandemic, a Toronto-based AI firm, BlueDot, developed a disease analytics platform that predicted and warned against the spread of the disease. As the situation worsened, it was leveraged by many governments, including the Government of Canada, to guide their decision-making and to monitor the spread of the disease and the effectiveness of behaviours such as social distancing. By using anonymous data to monitor the response of the public health systems, the platform was able to inform the deployment of valuable resources. It became an example of how technology can be used to uphold the value of safety.

However, AI relies on the collection of large sets of data to function, raising concerns around data privacy. In Israel, anti-terrorism tracking technology was used to surveil citizens and collect data to minimize the spread of the virus. The wide use of this technology included real-time tracking of infected people to pinpoint their current location, where they have been and possibly who they have been in contact with. Without the right measures and governance structures in place, the use of similar technologies could continue for purposes that could infringe on people’s privacy. Thus, municipalities must use ethics as the lens by which they assess their challenges to ensure that the community values are being upheld in the design and implementation of Smart City projects.

Ethics are critical to cities. I think as a society, we have to retain certain values that we believe are core to who we are. Ethics go beyond privacy. While one of these engines may rely on AI, it has got significant capabilities and potential that may question some of our foundational things about us as human beings. We need certain principles to allow us to maintain or retain reasonable ethics and values in what we do. We need to start really taking responsibility to define the boundaries.

Nasir Kenea, Chief Information Officer, City of Markham


Municipalities in Canada are problem solvers but might not know where to start.


Cities play many roles for the communities within them. They provide services and opportunities among other things. However, the way cities are planned and how they are experienced are not always aligned. Cities need to start with their communities, by actively engaging them to identify and establish their needs and values for this alignment to be achieved. An Ethical Smart City puts the values of its communities at the centre of the planning process. In this sense, municipalities interested in the incorporation of Smart City technologies must conduct a thorough public engagement process to co-create solutions with their community members. This will enable them to harness the values of their communities to design and implement holistic, ethical, inclusive and sustainable solutions. 

Public engagement is at the core of the decision-making process in an Ethical Smart City. It is through the broad spectrum of public engagement activities that municipal leaders can identify ethical values and empower their community members to co-create sustainable solutions for their challenges. Cities should, therefore, work toward creating a trusting and supportive environment to arrive at innovative solutions with their communities. 

Community values are the backbone of Ethical Smart Cities, paving the way for organic and inclusive solutions. Without the community’s input on their values and needs, technology becomes the primary focus for solving city challenges. Appropriately engaging communities allows for their values to be prioritized and incorporated into the decision-making process to ensure that cities are using technologies in an appropriate manner to solve the right challenges. This will create economically, socially and environmentally sustainable cities and will help transform communities into Ethical Smart Cities.

It is on everybody’s radar that there needs to be some [shared understanding] that has to be at play before you potentially turn on the switch on some technology.

Cyrus Tehrani, Chief Digital Officer, City of Hamilton