Smart Cities Take Root in Canada as Apps Learn to Improve Services
The drive to make cities smart provides more than just faster answers to questions about municipal services and reduced traffic tangles.

In 2014 the City of Surrey, B.C. launched Surrey Request, an app developed to field requests for service, including waste collection and road repair. The result? The city saves as much as $91,875 each year, a figure that’s expected to increase as residents acclimate to the automated service.

According to Sean Simpson, Surrey’s Director, Information Technology, in-person requests cost the city $9 per transaction while a phone calls cost $4.50. In contrast, a request sent through Surrey Request costs as little as $0.25. The self-serve channel now handles 15 percent of the 70,000 requests it receives annually.

Surrey took its smart city initiatives a step further when they partnered with tech startup Purple Forge last year to pilot the company’s Powered by IBM Watson solution. Available through the ‘My Surrey’ mobile and web apps that residents use to gather city information, including government services and job opportunities, the solution will further reduce Surrey’s reliance on telephone-based services.

The app uses IBM Watson’s advanced cognitive and natural language capabilities to answer residents’ questions about city services. Now, Surrey residents can hit the app and ask it, for example, how to contact animal control in the event that a cougar wanders into someone’s back yard. My Surrey will then reply with an email address and a phone number.

Building Entrepreneurs

The drive to make cities smart provides more than just faster answers to questions about municipal services. It gives entrepreneurs responding to the demand the opportunity to create solutions that can be commercialized. This ultimately builds the depth and breadth of startup ecosystems because the solutions that get deployed in smart city initiatives can often be adapted for other applications.

The concept of ‘smart cities’ has gained traction since the 90s with the rise of Information Computer Technology (ICT). In an interview with Wired, Gerhard Schmitt, professor of information architecture, and leader of the ETH Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore, said cities are “limited to technical data sensor inputs, control systems, apps”. To be ‘smart’, “cities need to be responsive this is a human-focused approach, where citizens can give feedback on the functioning of the city to those who run it.”

Working closely with multinational corporations, academic institutions, and tech startups in its top-20 ranked tech ecosystem, Singapore is taking a holistic approach to solving complex problems like urban density, energy sustainability, healthcare, mobility, and more, by leveraging technology.

“Technology builds its knowledge”

Given that 50 to 80 percent of requests submitted to service centers are for common questions, and apps like My Surrey can provide a potential savings of $4 to $6 per call, cities switching to smart solutions can improve their bottom lines. In a press release from Purple Forge, Councillor Bruce Hayne, Chair of Innovation & Investment Committee stated that “IBM Watson’s learning abilities are such that the technology builds its knowledge and improves as citizens use it.”

My Surrey is one of several IBM Watson-powered smart city initiatives in Canada. As cities transition to smart initiatives, measuring a city’s IQ, developing ‘telepathic cities’, and building ‘smart nations’, may become the norm.


Tech startups like Purple Forge have recognized that multiple opportunities leveraging their own IP exist within the public and private sectors. The company’s clients include five municipalities in the U.S. and Canada, as well as hospitals such as Norfolk General Hospital and industry associations including the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.  

Many Canadian cities are struggling with strained budgets as prices and demand for energy products fall, making more people dependent on provincial or municipal programs. As savings allow cities to divert funds to other priorities, and as the learning abilities of smart city apps improve the experience for users, smart technologies are likely to become more of a necessity than a nice-to-have.

Other Canadian startups pursuing smart city initiatives include Toronto-based Drven, and Kitchener-Waterloo based Miovision, which launched Spectrum, an app that sends messages to technicians if a traffic cabinet problem occurs.