Smart cities promise increased prosperity and improved quality of life for communities that can strategically leverage advanced technology and data analysis to address everyday challenges. Reduced traffic flow, improved access to services, new services, greater prosperity gained by new sources of revenue, and improved social inclusion are just some of the things that smart city initiatives aim to address. Delivering on the promise of smart cities depends, however, on the development and introduction of enabling governance frameworks – the ongoing negotiation between Sidewalk Labs and the City of Toronto is a case in point. At the core of the issue is the need to ensure that data collection, use and management in public contexts is done in a way that respects and facilitates social acceptance. Considering the variety and potential for divergence of stakeholders’ interests – municipalities, companies, university researchers, and citizens themselves – data governance of smart cities is a challenge.

Canadians acceptance of their personal information being used in smart city initiatives depends on the circumstances and the intended use. Canadians are more accepting of their data being used by governments for services such as improving traffic flows, particularly if they can maintain some level of control over its uses[1]. Data trusts have emerged as a possible solution for managing the vast amounts of data that smart cities will generate, in a way that provides accountability for a wide variety of stakeholders with different interests while maintaining expectations around privacy. Borrowing concepts from legal trusts, data trusts are intended to allow a trustor to put an asset into a trust, giving control of the asset to a trustee for a defined purpose, on behalf of a beneficiary. Not being a true legal trust, these models do not implement some of the stricter requirements, such as requiring all beneficiaries to agree to changes in the purpose of the trust should one arise. Such differences create more flexibility for the data steward. The Open Data Institute in the UK is exploring data trusts, prototyping, and evaluating various governance models along the way. The underlying governance principle is that by placing the citizen at the centre of the governance model and through co-design, the structural processes that enable improved privacy and increased engagement are facilitated along with social aspects, like trust[2].

The Sidewalk Toronto project intends to leverage a “civic data trust” for urban data. This project has generated much discussion on privacy, rights and the circumstances in which individuals are comfortable relinquishing control and decision making to a third party. The public attention this project is raising may become the litmus test for other smart cities initiatives, including Infrastructure Canada’s recent Smart City Challenge. More than 200 communities from across Canada responded to call for applications. Projects by prize-winners such as Nunavut Communities and the City of Guelph and Wellington County were successful in large part because they pitched initiatives that are grounded in community interests and needs. Nunavut Communities will focus on creating a hub that allows residents to access technology, create new connections, combat suicide and focus on mental health and well-being, issues that are of high importance to its residents. The City of Guelph and Wellington County project will focus on food accessibility, economic development and reduced environmental food waste, all items that are central to the identity of the region and sustainability.

If the Sidewalk Toronto project is any indication, the fate of these projects will depend on meeting expectations that data stewardship will be governed in ways that uphold community interests. For smart city projects such as Nunavut Communities and the City of Guelph and Wellington County, perhaps the biggest question regarding their data governance frameworks is less about the right to collect and use data. Instead, these projects provide an opportunity to focus on the ability to execute consistent, effective and predictable mechanisms of data governance while also maintaining community trust.

Canadian communities have demonstrated a willingness to embrace the mantra of the smart city. With few examples of how data trusts that allow for greater data sharing and decision making amongst third parties can be operationalized, it is difficult to know for sure if they will indeed deliver on all that is expected of them. As smart city projects continue to deploy, lessons learned on data governance will play a central role in their maturity and progress.