Students brainstorming city-modelling software features
Students brainstorming city-modelling software features at the Smart Cities Workshop. (Photo by Ken Jones)
Wednesday, February 28 - 2018
Joseph Burrell

The City of Toronto is looking to attract the eyes of the federal government -- who will be awarding a $50 million urban planning grant to one municipality – by crowd-sourcing development ideas from U of T Scarborough students.


Representatives from the city assembled a think-tank of international development, city studies and environmental science students at the Instructional Centre for their “Smart Cities Workshop” on Tuesday.  


Chief Transformation Officer and U of T Scarborough alumnus Michael Kolm opened the workshop by outlining six general directions the city hoped to follow through the creation of action plans. Those directions included: child-friendly cities, to ensure the safety of every child in Toronto communities; digital sandboxes, an all-encompassing term for software that will be used to create working 3D models of potential infrastructure plans; matching, to better pair vulnerable Torontonians with relevant social services; civic society, general initiatives aimed at increasing public engagement in urban development; mobility planning, for traffic and transit infrastructure; and smart tower renewal for renovations to aging apartment buildings.


“It’s all about getting these ideas flowing now. These projects might be completed years from now but if we don’t get bright young people involved early we may lose them to other opportunities,” Kolm said.


The students had no shortage of ideas once the floor opened for discussion, with safety and equal opportunity for Toronto’s vulnerable groups presented as primary concerns.


“Toronto is a very safe city, but this is a different time from when I grew up, when kids just roamed,” Kolm said. “So how can we keep kids engaged out in parks but also keep them safe?”


Nicole Anasis, an environmental studies major, addressed the issue of motivating young people to get out and learn about their neighbourhoods with the help of modern technology, without also promoting a culture where children stay indoors and only connect with their communities online.


“We look at something like Pokemon GO, except for learning about your city,” she said. “Imagine you’re at a park and you see a tree, then your phone tells you something about that tree. Or you’re near Davenport road and your phone tells you that it was once a throughway for Indigenous peoples.”


She also acknowledged that some ethical concerns arise when planning these kinds of games to be played by children.


“The city would have to consider if the app is funded by ads, what is being shown to children, is their privacy at risk, etcetera,” she added.


Apartment renovations and general housing concerns were also at the forefront of the discussion. Fateha Hossain, an International Development Studies major, planned a variety of approaches the city could take when updating its older apartment buildings but she also worried that her ideas would inflate rent prices even higher.


“Are we going to provide greater digital infrastructure in these buildings? Who will decide what buildings are updated first, and how will we prevent gentrification in the areas receiving more attention?” Hossain said.


Kolm expressed his gratitude to the students and noted that he was confident in Toronto’s chance to win the federal grant. Five cities with the most innovative proposals will receive $250,000 by the end of April, from these five, one city will receive the remaining funding in 2019.