Written by Faun Rice

In late June 2019, ICTC sat down with Mayor David Mitchell and Sustainability Planner Leon de Vreede of Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, a town of about 8,500 people, to hear about their Smart Cities project. Bridgewater is one of four recipients of an Infrastructure Canada Smart Cities grant. This competition, which ended on May 14, 2019, was intended to support municipalities who had a strong plan for using data and integrated technologies to enhance wellbeing and sustainability in their communities. While all participants were asked to engage with the Smart City framework, finalists’ priorities and proposals ranged widely, from transportation access to food security to youth education.

Bridgewater’s representatives shed some light on a key question: how meaningful is the Smart Cities concept for smaller Canadian cities, towns, and regions, and does it make sense to apply the term regardless of scale?

The proposal that won Bridgewater $5M is to reduce energy poverty, defined as a state wherein 10% or more of a household’s income goes to energy costs, after tax. Energy Poverty afflicts about 40% of Bridgewater. In our interview, David and Leon spoke about the process of discovering this problem, creating a data-informed solution using integrated tech, and some of the challenges and advantages to being a Smart City of under 10,000 people. The Q&A below highlights Bridgewater’s insights on developing a Smart City concept, implementing it, and managing issues of scalability and privacy.

What made you decide to enter Bridgewater into the Smart Cities Challenge?

David: We felt our project was worthy of the exposure that Smart Cities would give it, and it gave us access to resources we wouldn’t have otherwise had.

Was it tough to be in the same competition as much larger cities?

David: Oh, it was easy. I knew what we had, and I felt like we had the best plan; so if we were up against Toronto or Montreal, I think they would have been more concerned than we were. We had a demonstrated need and a demonstrated solution.

Can you tell me about the process that led to identifying energy poverty as the key issue for Bridgewater?

Leon: It really came from our previous work on the Community Energy Investment Plan, where we discovered that the average Bridgewater household’s annual energy expenditure is about $6,500, even though the median household income is about $45,000 before tax. So we started wondering, how are people affording energy? That plan was really about greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency, and economic development, but the social element of energy affordability really began to concern us. The Smart Cities Challenge gave us the firepower to dig into the social side of what we’d just uncovered.

David: The consultation was very robust; we had contributions from surveys, regional stakeholders, Nova Scotia Power. It was as close to a census as we could get at the local level.

Was your plan and problem a natural fit with the Smart Cities concept? Were there any additions to the proposal you might not have made otherwise?

Leon: There was a big learning curve, for sure, but on a basic level we gained a lot of appreciation for making data and results-informed decision-making. We also did a lot of learning about how interconnected energy systems are with smart and connected technologies—so we moved from “what are smart meters?” to “how are these technologies moving their way into the home and building marketplace making improvements but nevertheless significantly underutilized?” For example, we realized that home energy monitoring systems allow us to demonstrate energy savings to investors; and data streams like that allow us to justify housing upgrades.

Have you begun to get a sense for what a Smart City means for a smaller region? What distinguishes “Smart Bridgewater” from “Smart Toronto”?

Leon: I think we’ve demonstrated that better decision-making using data and connected technologies is scale-independent. The area with the least clarity still for us, though, is what a Smart City solution looks like on a small community scale for technology infrastructure. For example, we’re creating an energy management information system for the entire community: can a bigger city implement a solution like this for much lower cost per-capita? Or is it possible that there just isn’t a vendor yet in the marketplace that is able to deliver that solution effectively to a community of our size? In the meantime, we’re intending to build this database using our municipal management software.

Does the same challenge of infrastructure scalability apply to some of the hardware pieces of your proposal, like smart micro-grids or solar panels?

Leon: The main challenges preventing energy solutions from being deployed are not to do with the technology. The barriers are capital and regulations, zoning, or getting local utilities on board. None of these are Smart Cities problems, and as a small community we can move quite nimbly.

How do you plan to manage residents’ security and privacy, given that this is such an important piece of the Smart Cities conversation?

Leon: We did a preliminary privacy impact assessment: the main areas that cropped up were user control and ownership of data; including energy data, financial data, home building information and things like that, and the big one was health data. Our coordinated access system will allow citizens to access social services in a kind of “one-stop shop”: the key indicator we are trying to change is the rate of energy poverty, so we identified a range of health and wellbeing indicators around that that we would use to articulate what changes for people as they live in more energy-secure environments. Are they sick less often, has their air quality improved?

Nova Scotia has a very aggressive Personal Health Information Act, so in working with that we’re really building our program on important foundational principles of household-level ownership of data, non-transmission of data without explicit consent, de-identification and aggregation of household data to become neighbourhood clusters or system- or solution-type clusters. Also, as the system is founded on our municipal management software, access is already highly restricted. I think that’s one of the strengths of our proposal: we’re not sending information off to some cloud-based black box, we own the box, and we have a high level of accountability for managing it.

Is there anything you would like the rest of Canada to take away from your experience and win?

David: The first is that our community isn’t unique: every community has some percentage of its citizens living in energy poverty, so no-one should think that they are exempt from this problem. There is also the climate change component, which we haven’t really touched on, but that’s a big one too—so everyone has a role to play there. I think what we’ve learned is that this is a solution regardless of the scale of your community.

Leon: We’re excited to be part of the national dialogue on what smart communities and Smart Cities mean. I feel like we’re doing an awful lot of flying by the seat of our pants, and I think that’s okay. If communities don’t try to apply these solutions because they’re worried that they’re not expert enough, then we’re never going to get there. We can either use Smart City tools in a good way or they’re going to become highly corporatized black boxes that communities don’t have access to because they weren’t being proactive.