Open menu

Looking back at our discussions on smart cities with French municipal leaders


A week of discussion on smart cities

OpenNorth and our partner CIVITEO, a firm which provides consulting services to support the ethical and efficient management of public data in Nantes, France, organized a learning exchange for a delegation of French ‘smart city’ leaders. For a week at the end of april 2019, the group of participants, which included elected officials, activists, law experts, and journalists, exchanged practices around the public management and use of data and technology in three Canadian cities: Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto.

During this weeklong exchange, OpenNorth organized meetings on the topic of smart cities and related domains, including open data, data privacy, citizen rights, regulation, ethics, citizen engagement, and artificial intelligence, among other topics. Through these discussions, we got to observe the ways in which norms and practices differ between France and Canada, which in turn encouraged us to think critically about our own practices. Therefore, during this week we effectively learned as much about ourselves, as we did about our French colleagues.

How does the smart cities landscape in Canada and France differ?

Before the delegation of participants arrived in Montreal, we reflected upon how the landscape of smart cities in Canada and France differ. While both settings are marked by rapid transformations in public and digital spheres, we can have different approaches to innovation and regulation.

In Canada, a number of municipalities are in the midst of developing smart cities projects, made possible in part by the Smart Cities Challenge launched by Infrastructure Canada. Over the course of the last year, Canadian cities have been developing and proposing strategic plans relating to open data, digital platforms and technology for the benefit of city residents. Let’s not forget small, rural and indigenous communities, who are also leading initiatives that aim to improve citizens’ lives by making use of technology and data. While these projects are often inscribed in co-creation and public consultation processes, many issues continue to be raised concerning the management of data and its responsible and ethical use.

In Canada, we tend to be open to experimentation and the involvement of private actors in our public spaces, and then afterwards look to develop appropriate regulation. In France, however, this process happens in reverse. For example, in May 2018, the European Union adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a law which establishes base rules concerning the collection and use of personal data. France has also recently adopted the Law for a Digital Republic, which requires municipalities of over 3500 inhabitants to open their data ‘by default’. While many municipalities are making progress in their open data programs, there is still much work left to do: in October 2018 the OpenData Territorial Observatory (France) found that out of 4510 municipalities which are concerned by the application of the law, there are only 343 municipalities that have open data programs.

With these contexts in mind, below we summarize key discussions that took place during our week with French colleagues, while drawing key questions and takeaways from these conversations.


During our time in Montreal, French delegates had the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the local data and innovation ecosystem, beginning with the arts and culture sector. We facilitated a meeting with Synapse C, a non-profit organization that was recently founded out of the Quartier des Spectacles partnership. Synapse C aims to decipher and build on arts and culture data in Quebec and Canada, while fostering a culture of collaboration amongst organizations in the sector. During our discussions, we learned about the potential for data sharing platforms to bring benefits to arts organizations and their audiences, and considered obstacles and risks relating to the sharing of personal data.

In our next meeting with Nabeel Ahmed, Programme Officer at OpenNorth’s One-to-One Advisory Service, and Tracey Lauriault, Assistant Professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, we moved onto questions relating to public trust and the application of laws in Canadian jurisdictions. Through these exchanges, we observed that there is a clear interest on behalf of Canadian cities and municipalities to get involved in smart city projects. However, the Canadian smart cities landscape can be fragmented, because the application of laws related to the collection and use of data depends on government jurisdiction, whether that be municipal, provincial or federal levels of government.

In the pursuit of continued reflections on the topic of the norms, regulations and judicial frameworks, we organized a discussion with Christope Abrassart, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Urban Planning of the University of Montreal and researcher at the Observatoire international sur les impacts sociétaux de l’IA. Professor Abrassart led us through the creation of the Montreal Declaration for responsible AI, an ethical framework for artificial intelligence, which was developed through a deliberate process engaging citizens, experts, and other stakeholders in Montreal.

During our last meeting in Montreal, we met with the Laboratoire de l’innovation urbaine de Montréal. Here, delegates brought together their newly-gained knowledge on Montreal’s innovation trajectory, and discovered the principles and experimentation methodologies that have enabled the City to pursue and implement cultural and digital transitions.


While in Ottawa, the delegation was invited to the Embassy of France to meet with Kareen Rispal, Ambassador of France in Canada, where we discussed how to concretize the sharing of knowledge and practices between France and Canada. Certain members of the delegation presented experiences from their respective regions, sharing insight on how public administrations can respond to challenges prompted by the introduction of technologies in public and private life.

Next, in our meeting with Mélanie Robert, Executive Director of Open Government and Services at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, participants learned about the federal government’s open government program. This program is closely linked to the international open government movement – a movement which aims to make government and its activities more accountable and transparent through implementing principles such as open ‘by default’. These discussions highlighted a number of challenges for government, notably the challenge for local governments to publish high quality open data with limited resources. We also discussed artificial intelligence, and raised a number of key questions for public authorities, such as : How do we measure the impact of algorithm use in society?

Our last meeting in Ottawa was with Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Policy and Full Professor at the University of Ottawa, and David Fewer, Director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. Here, we examined the concept of a data trust: a data governance tool wherein a third party manages consent on behalf of users, so that they have better control over their personal data. By working through different examples, we examined how these governance models are distinct from the traditional regulatory approach, which raised a number of questions, such as: What are the obligations of third parties relating to the data owners? And, who has the rights to re-use personal data?

With these questions in mind, we continued our week with a stop in Toronto, where we had more opportunities to consider different data governance models with a concrete application: examining the case of the Quayside urban development proposal put forward by Sidewalks Labs in downtown Toronto.


Toronto was a stop not to be missed during the study trip, not only because it’s Canada’s largest city, but also because the City of Toronto is well-recognized for its leadership in publishing open data.

Upon arriving in Toronto, we were welcomed by the Ontario Digital Service team, who shared their Digital First Plan as well as the related citizen engagement process. The Ontario Digital Service team designed and implemented an engagement strategy which had multiple ways in which citizens could participate and provide their feedback. Together, we discussed challenges in eliciting feedback from those who are traditionally less represented in deliberative processes of public consultation, especially considering the digital divide and differences in broadband connectivity across urban and rural territories.

Next, we met with Code for Canada, a non-profit organization which aims to help governments and communities in Canada harness the power of digital technology for the common good. Code for Canada spoke about their Fellowship program which integrates professionals coming from the private and non for profit sectors into government departments to work on specific technology projects. Our French colleagues were impressed with the breadth and depth of the projects completed through the work exchanges, which have been successful at many levels of the Canadian government.

The last and most highly-anticipated visit of the trip was our meeting organized with Sidewalk Labs. Here, we got to learn first-hand about the proposed urban development plan for the Quayside site, specifically the mobility, housing, job creation, and public spaces plans. We also broached the topic of the collection and use of data coming from urban sensors, and the members of the delegation raised a number of questions concerning the ownership of data, consent, and the ethical uses of sensor-derived data.

Following our visit to Sidewalk Labs, we debriefed with two Toronto-based activists, Bianca Wylie, Co-founder of Tech Reset Canada and Nasma Ahmed, Director of the Digital Justice Lab. We discussed how the project risks imposing a new order of governance in public spaces, as data collection and surveillance technologies are increasingly introduced to the public realm. We also thought about how this project could potentially reframe the democratic processes which are constituted in cities, and the potential consequences not only for Toronto, but also for other cities within and outside of Canada.


This week of learning and exchange nourished fruitful discussions on the governance of our cities in an era of digital transformation. Through our meetings and workshops, we discovered how Canadian and French municipal contexts differ in terms of institutional settings, political processes, judicial frameworks and cultural practices. Overall, we appreciated how French delegates were open to debate and exchange and we were equally inspired by their commitment to explore alternative models of governance. On the other hand, our French colleagues were most impressed with our capacity to engage a wide range of actors on complex governance issues, while remaining open to experimentation and innovation.

Moving forward, and in this spirit of exchange and collaboration, we encourage readers to continue to explore these topics, first by reading this blog post by CIVITEO, and then, by following the development of smart city projects, which continue to pose tensions and challenges on both sides of the Atlantic.

Subscribe to our newsletter to access our latest resources!