Earlier this year I spoke at a Library and Archives Canada conference on the topic of smart cities. This conference was timely for the NCC as we recently launched the Plan for Canada’s Capital 2017-2067 which for the first time seeks to address the future of Canada’s Capital region as a smart city.

The plan envisions a smart capital city that is ‘thriving, and connected’ to the world. It leads me to the question I will explore in this post: what makes a capital city smart?

I see three areas where capital cities are best positioned to become smart cities: knowledge, the public realm, and innovation.  


I have been pondering Minister Melanie Joly’s challenge to rethink Canadian content in the digital age. I’ve been asking myself: Where does the Capital fit in? Is there something unique about how knowledge is vested in the capital and its institutions?  

The knowledge-forming entities of our region can be used to create a digital signature that becomes recognized by city regions worldwide. The capital’s knowledge cluster is reinforced by the presence of flagship cultural and scientific institutions, higher education institutions and our thriving private sector.   

Bernard Stiegler’s distinction between knowledge and information is revealing:

  • ‘information’ is considered most valuable when it is breaking and it decays with the passing of time
  • ‘knowledge’ may not have immediate meaning but its value accrues over time.  

Smart cities are primarily about harnessing information—big data and open data—to optimize the performance of their infrastructures in real time.  Smart capital cities are also about knowledge, led by their memory forming institutions, primarily in deferred time.

The public realm

The NCC is the steward of physical assets, from Gatineau Park to the six official residences. How are these physical assets playing a role in the smart ‘capital’ city?  Here are a few examples:  

Greater integration of Ottawa and Gatineau’s transit systems are critical to smart city urban transportation. We revamped the lane signaling on one of our interprovincial bridges to fully integrate it into the city of Ottawa’s centralized traffic control.  

Smart city approaches using big data can help this analysis. One light-hearted example I like to use is the map we consulted in preparing the Plan for Canada’s Capital drawing on geo-tagged open source photos. It shows the geographic distribution and the intensity of visitors’ interests as they post their photos of the capital region.

A more fundamental smart city approach would be to value the region’s green assets in order to model the regional economy on the principle of “natural capital”. To that end we recently released the first baseline study valuing the natural capital of the Capital Region.

Many smart cities around the globe are starting to emerge. See examples in StockholmBarcelona and here in Ottawa as the city moves ahead with a smart city approach to water management.   


Innovation derives directly from the need to overcome fundamental constraints. It is a creative response. For example, if you visit Phoenix you will have seen how 'triple digit heat'—their answer to our '40 below'—has induced remarkable architectural innovations in shading techniques.   

What are our constraints here in Canada’s capital? Here’s one:

As a northern perimeter city, we are a very dark capital for much of the year. So let us become innovators in illumination. The NCC’s Capital Illumination Plan to be finalized in September of this year emphasizes the beauty and character of our built and natural environment all while enhancing sustainability, security and reducing light pollution.   

Find out more

If you are interested in the topic of smart cities, I invite you to discover our Capital Urbanism Lab where the NCC has been exploring various smart city themes such as: automated vehicles, ecological urbanism and storm water management, urban agriculture, illumination plans, and eco-design for cities.

We will be launching our 4th season in September and I look forward to more thought-provoking debate about how our Capital can thrive as a smart city-region in the next 50 years.