A Smart City for Newcomers

(Source: City of Edmonton)

(Source: City of Edmonton)

The City of Edmonton, Canada, is currently a finalist in the Smart Cities Challenge, launched by the Government of Canada in 2017. This article looks at some of Edmonton’s key priorities in this process and how they used the opportunity to focus on the health and well-being of immigrants and newcomers.


The Refugee’s Journey: Welcome to Canada

Last November, a video of two Eritrean children in Toronto, dancing in the snow, went viral. Within days, there were millions of views on social media, 132,000+ likes under the Twitter hashtags #RefugeesWelcome & #NewcomersWelcome, and dozens of international news agencies re-posting the video on their platforms.

Snow is pretty standard-fare for most Canadians. But watching the children chase after snowflakes brought many viewers to tears. The video even elicited a joke by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – musing that all the children’s parents needed to do next was convince them that shoveling snow was equally enjoyable.

The video was filmed forty-eight hours after they arrived in Canada; the children were part of a family of five fleeing conflict in Eritrea. It captured the quintessential “honeymoon phase” for newcomers to Canada: the novelty offered by a new and exciting place and, for many refugees like the Eritrean family, the relief of finally leaving a refugee camp and being able to start afresh.

However, post-arrival, the majority of newcomers begin to face many struggles. What opportunities can city governments seize on to address these struggles and facilitate the social and economic integration of newcomers?

 

The Smart City Challenge and the City of Edmonton

Expectations for cities around the world have changed. No longer just a service and utility provider, the modern municipality is a key player in improving the social welfare of all of its citizens. City governments have the unique ability to work directly with residents and modify the local built environment to combat social isolation.

In 2017, the Government of Canada launched the Smart Cities Challenge, which encouraged cities and communities across Canada to adopt a “smart cities approach” to improve the lives of their residents through innovation, data, and connected technologies. In the next few months, the Minister of Infrastructure Canada will award $50 million to the winning city.

The City of Edmonton was selected as a Finalist in the Smart Cities Challenge, proposing to create a municipal-led Healthy City ecosystem that leverages partnerships, data sharing, and innovative technologies to improve the quality of life for residents. While smart mobility such as autonomous vehicles and service digitization are important, they do not lay a core foundation to improve the quality of life for all Canadians. Edmonton’s approach proposes to improve resident health by addressing the root causes of health issues, rather than treating the symptoms.

Focusing on the social determinants of health will cost less than reactive spending on healthcare and will improve the lives of citizens. This is a transformational shift in thinking - one emphasizing prevention and the role that community-building activities and services can play in contributing to health outcomes.

A city of the future - a Smart City - is a Healthy City. To achieve preventive health outcomes, municipalities need to focus on enabling the economic, physical, mental and social health of their residents. Focusing on the social determinants of health will cost less than reactive spending on healthcare and will improve the lives of citizens. This is a transformational shift in thinking - one emphasizing prevention and the role that community-building activities and services can play in contributing to health outcomes. Dr. Richard Lewanczuk (2018) found a near perfect correlation between the loneliness score of adults over 55 and the likelihood that they were among the five percent of the population that consumes 65 percent of healthcare resources (in the Province of Alberta this was equivalent to $4.3 billion in 2017). The findings from this type of research encouraged the City to focus its Smart City efforts on promoting social connectivity, particularly of vulnerable or marginalized groups, as a means of building a Healthy City.

Newcomers to Edmonton and Barriers Faced

In preparing its Smart Cities application, the City of Edmonton found a number of barriers that newcomers face. These include lack of family, language, and cultural supports, as well as limited awareness of the services available to assist them with their integration. Of the almost 3,000 Syrian refugees that arrived in Edmonton over the past few years, employment stress and deficient housing, health and mental well-being were identified as major barriers to successful integration in their host communities.

As Edmonton continues to grow, city officials are considering how Edmonton can harness new technology to better welcome and integrate newcomers  (Source: City of Edmonton)

As Edmonton continues to grow, city officials are considering how Edmonton can harness new technology to better welcome and integrate newcomers (Source: City of Edmonton)

Recognizing these challenges, the City of Edmonton selected newcomers as one of its first target demographic communities, as the City embarked on its Smart City journey. The federal government of Canada has jurisdiction over immigration and the final say on who can enter the country, but it is in municipalities where newcomers live and work. Furthermore, it is very often municipal services, regulations, and infrastructure that determine the success of the immigrant experience. Despite federal funding to support settlement and agencies on the ground dedicated to supporting new arrivals, the pressures of learning a new language and securing a job can take a toll on an individual’s physical and mental health.

To enable newcomers to achieve more successful integration, the City of Edmonton chose to explore how it could increase the sense of belonging of newcomers through the provision of technology, programs and other services.

Municipal Interventions: A Smart City Approach

The question then becomes: how do municipalities become better at easing the burden for newcomers as they transition out of the honeymoon phase and into the more complex, post-arrival integration phase? The following are some key activities undertaken by the City of Edmonton to support all newcomers:

(1)   A Welcoming Message from the Top: One key consideration is a well-informed and supportive Mayor and Council. The Council recently sent a welcoming message in which it confirmed that city services would be available to all residents, regardless of documentation. This “access without fear” policy commits city officials to only ask residents for the level of identification necessary. This allows newcomers to access subsidized transit and recreation passes while waiting on their immigration status, without fear of deportation. Such political support filters down to City Administration; the Edmonton Police Service continues to foster relationships with service providers such as Migrante Alberta, Edmonton Immigrant Services Association, and the Alberta Coalition on Human Trafficking.

(2)   Stakeholder Coordination: The City of Edmonton recognizes it is not alone. There are numerous stakeholders in a municipal ecosystem and fostering strong partnerships among them is essential.

Collaboration was essential in Edmonton’s ability to absorb a large number of Syrian refugees over the past few years. When immigration began, there were concerns about whether Edmonton had sufficient support in place. But Suzanne Gross, Manager of External Partnerships and Collaboration at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, recognized the benefits of bringing together traditional and non-traditional partners to fill this gap. Not long after, traditional settlement agencies and non-traditional partners such as the Edmonton Art Gallery and local Indigenous agencies were collaborating, leading to enhanced services for all.

(3)   Leveraging Data: The City of Edmonton is a Canadian leader when it comes to Open Data. Its vision is “open by default.” There are more than 2,100 data sets available on the City’s open data portal. The objective is not simply to publish and release data. It is to nurture more strategic, community-based decision making by providing data and information to all ecosystem stakeholders and ensuring they have the tools and knowledge to perform meaningful analysis. While careful precautions are always necessary for protection of privacy, such data sharing can break down silos between organizations and permit new analytics and data mining capability that furthers optimization of service delivery and accessibility.

(4)   Supporting Immigrant Community Initiatives: Edmonton also supports newcomers through direct programming and services. An example is the Emerging Immigrant and Refugee Communities Grant program, which helps to bring newcomers together to reduce isolation and build stronger communities. This program ensures that newcomers have access to training and are aware of the multitude of community services available to them. The program also aims to translate more city information into Arabic and other languages, so as to accommodate the growing diversity of languages spoken in the City. To further increase newcomers’ sense of belonging, the City of Edmonton also employs digital tools such as in-ear, real-time translation devices and app-delivered language training.

Edmonton’s Smart City Framework, included within the city’s Smart Cities Challenge bid  (Source: City of Edmonton)

Edmonton’s Smart City Framework, included within the city’s Smart Cities Challenge bid (Source: City of Edmonton)

A Smart City is a Healthy City, supported by the Mayor and Council, in partnership with all stakeholders in a municipal ecosystem. This community of support is essential for delivering the high quality services to all who need them.

Inevitably, newcomers will face difficulties in settling into new surroundings. The honeymoon phase may always have a shelf life. But as the case of Edmonton demonstrates, the modern municipality can play a substantial role in alleviating post-arrival challenges and facilitating integration.

You can learn more about Edmonton’s Smart City Challenge bid here.


Tomas Ernst has worked in local, provincial, federal, and international civil service for over 15 years. Tomas’ start-up company, donatetoplay.com, was recognized by Boulevard Magazine for its innovation in transforming the financial practices of nonprofits. He spent eight years working with the United Nations and World Bank Group in Australia, Europe, East Africa, and the Middle East. He served as Acting Branch Manager and Director in the Citizen Services Department at the City of Edmonton prior to joining the Open City and Technology branch. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Masters in International Relations.

Works Cited

Lewanczuk, R. (2018). The critical importance of going beyond administrative data for health systems planning and integration. International Journal of Integrated Care 18(2).