Many Canadians are excited about what a smart city in Canada could offer, whether it's improving administrative, health, energy, or mobility services. To find out which services are most in demand (as well as learn about concerns associated with them), we surveyed 1,000+ Canadians living in cities.

research study on usage and concerns of a smart city in canada

Since the Canadian government launched the Smart Cities Challenge in 2017, buzz around Smart Cities in Canada—as well as the smart cities themselves—has been growing. Over 225 municipalities across the country applied to become smart cities, using information technology systems to improve urban planning, public transportation, smart waste management, and overall, citizens’ lives.

Skipping ahead six years, what do smart cities in Canada look like now? What services are they offering, and which ones might be added in the future?

To help local governments get a clearer picture of how best to keep innovating their digital services, we surveyed over 1,000 Canadian residents of cities with a population of at least 100,000 to find out what citizens expect from and how they engage with smart city services. For a full survey methodology, scroll to the bottom of this article.

What defines a smart city?

Before we dive into the analysis of smart city services, let’s look at what defines a smart city. 

What is a smart city?

A smart city is a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies. These tools empower information sharing to improve access to municipal services in a variety of domains, from energy to democracy to sustainability.

Only one in five Canadians know what a smart city is

Although the list of Smart Cities Challenge applicants includes big cities such as Toronto, Montréal, Calgary, and more, not all Canadians are up to date on their smart city knowledge. When asked about their knowledge of this concept, only 20% of respondents say they know exactly what a smart city is. A quarter (25%) say they are aware of the concept but didn’t have a name for it, while a similar number of respondents (24%) say they had heard the name but didn’t know what it means.

While the majority of survey-takers have a vague knowledge of smart cities, awareness of this innovation is relatively low. Compared to other countries where this survey was conducted (Australia, France, Italy, and the UK), Canadians were least likely to be fully aware of the concept.

awareness of smart cities in canada, uk, australia, italy

Tip for municipalities: To raise awareness of your smart city efforts and maximize use of your services, you need to ramp up your communication efforts. Try encouraging citizen support of smart city services by providing updates and information via social media, email newsletters, or via your own website. Don’t forget to include information about how services work, their benefits, and any incentives. 

Creating a campaign with a series of messages (which can be automatically scheduled and sent via marketing software) is also a great way to be sure you reach as much of your audience as possible.

What are smart city services in Canada?

The confusion around the topic of smart cities in Canada may arise due to a lack of clarity on which services are needed to make a city “smart.” In reality, any municipally-offered service that leverages technology to make processes easier for citizens is a smart city service, such as registering online to vote or renting a city bike using a smartphone app.

In Canadian cities, mobility services and smart payment and finances are the most common smart city services—65% of respondents say they have smart mobility in their cities, such as recharging stations for electric cars, zero emissions public transportation, and rentable bikes or motorbikes. The same number of respondents claim to have digital payment options at their disposal when accessing government services.

Following these, other common smart city solutions currently available in Canada include:

  • Online education (reported by 50% of respondents)
  • Digital security services such as video monitoring in public places (46%)
  • Smart energy services such as smart water meters and electricity meters (39%)

Despite the commonality of mobility services, less than a third of Canadians are using them

Smart city services are there to empower citizens to engage with government initiatives more efficiently. But, are Canadians making use of them?

Where such services are available, actual usage of them is lower than availability. Smart mobility services, for example, are one of the most commonly available utilities, with nearly two-thirds of respondents claiming to have them at their disposal. Yet, under a third (29%) of city dwellers who have access to mobility services actually use them to get around. 

Of course, just because citizens can use digital services doesn’t mean they necessarily need to. Some services won’t apply to everyone, such as online education, which would best serve those currently studying or upskilling, or security services most likely accessed by protective agencies in the municipality.

availability and usage of smart city solutions in Canada

However, low percentages of service usage isn’t ideal for municipalities investing time and money into providing these opportunities. Promoting the adoption of the available services becomes a necessary part of providing them, so that the investment is well spent and citizens get those most out of a smart city lifestyle.

Tip for municipalities: Getting the word out about new city services is vital in getting citizens to start using them, but their comfort level with technology may also play a role. To ensure residents can use the services available to them, digital inclusion efforts must be made. According to 49% of respondents, the best way to encourage usage of smart city services amongst all citizens is to offer free training on how to use digital tools, which could be implemented with a learning management system (LMS).

Nearly half of Canadian city dwellers want smart cities to improve health services

If Canadians could decide themselves what their smart city included, which services would they choose? 

When asked about their desires for future smart cities in Canada, nearly half of respondents (49%) say health-related services should be a focal point. In our 2021 Telemedicine Survey, most telehealth users had positive experiences and wanted to continue using them; many even thought implementing AI-tools could improve telehealth services.

Amidst the difficulties Canada's health system has faced since the pandemic, it seems many Canadians think improvements should be made to advance digital healthcare options in smart cities. 

It makes sense then that 36% of Canadian survey-takers also think housing and urban planning should be a priority for future smart city development, as the housing market has been growing rapidly since 2020 (as have the real estate technologies available).

Following the health and housing sectors, other priorities for smart city development include:

  • Security and protection of citizens (which 35% of respondents voted for)
  • Transportation (34%)
  • Energy management (30%)

Collecting data from citizens to power these initiatives is a sensitive practice, however. For some of these programs to work, personal, financial, and medical data would need to be shared. Ensuring the information is safe should be a priority for all smart cities, as 62% of Canadian respondents think the lack of data protection is the most prevalent challenge to smart city development.

Tip for municipalities: Complying with data privacy laws is of utmost importance, not just for companies but also for local governments. There are a number of requirements that data collectors must follow as per the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) and there may be additional guidelines depending on the province you are located in. Canadian-made compliance software can be helpful in this case, as it will help you follow the laws as they apply to your municipality.

63% think data sharing with private companies should be limited

When it comes to cybersecurity concerns around sharing data, most respondents think steps should be taken to limit personal data sharing with other companies. The more entities that have data stored, the more chances there are for data misplacement or breach; the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) even published a report saying smart cities could be facing these risks.

Citizens believe other steps should be taken to protect sensitive data, as well—56% believe more money should be invested in cybersecurity, and 55% believe the minimum amount of data should be collected by smart city services. However, this doesn’t signal a distrust in municipalities to protect their residents’ data. In fact, respondents are more willing to share their data with municipalities rather than private companies.

data sharing preferences in regard to smart cities in canada

It’s great to see that many Canadians trust their municipalities with their personal data, but the lack of trust in private companies could pose a problem. Smart city governments often partner with private entities that can offer the technical infrastructure or products that smart cities need to offer services. 

For example, Bike Share Toronto is partnered with private company Shift Transit, and Vancouver uses the privately-owned app Alertable to notify residents of significant local emergencies.

To quell worries about who has their data, smart cities should address citizens’ concerns with transparency. Respondents are most worried about cyberattacks or data breaches, with 70% stating they are “quite” or “extremely” concerned. Sixty-five percent also feel the same degree of concern for the possibility of unauthorized surveillance, and 57% are as worried about having their data sold for marketing purposes. 

Tip for municipalities: Data-collection policies should not only be compliant with data privacy laws, but also cybersecure. There are many types of cybersecurity software that can protect your organization’s technical infrastructure; all one has to do is know how to find the right software. In case any bad actors do get through the forcefield, it’s also important to have an incident response plan on hand.

Overall, sustainability is the goal of smart cities 

For 35% of Canadians surveyed, a sustainable city is the most important aspect of having smart city services—35% think that the technologies used in smart cities should help make the cities more environmentally friendly and reduce waste. 

Many of the services referenced above can improve a smart city’s sustainability, such as shared mobility services which encourage eco-friendly transportation or e-governance services which reduce the need to travel to administrative offices for certain tasks. These services also help with accessibility and convenience, which 23% and 20% of respondents think should be prioritized, respectively.

In addition to these overarching goals for smart cities, other takeaways for city managers include:

  • Make sure citizens are ready to adopt your city’s digital services by keeping them in the loop with informative marketing campaigns about the efforts your city is making.
  • Implementing smart city services is one thing, and getting people to actually use them is another. Drive the usage of your services by focusing on digital inclusion through communication and educational platforms.
  • Canadians think smart cities should focus on helping industries in crisis, such as public health and housing, but that could require collecting personal, financial, or health-related data. Be sure to comply with personal privacy laws and secure networks with the cybersecurity software that offers the right protection for your technology. 

If you keep these objectives in mind as you manage your smart city, your city dwellers can rest assured that progress is on the way.

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Survey methodology:

To collect data for this study, Capterra conducted the Smart Cities Survey online in August 2023 in the following countries: Canada (1,046 participants), Australia (1,022 participants), the United Kingdom (1,058 participants), Italy (1,006 participants), and France (1,004 participants). The 5,136 candidates had to fulfill the following criteria:

  • Resident in Canada, France, Germany, or the UK
  • At least 18 years old

Reside in a medium or large city with a population of 100,000+ residents