Josipa Petrunic
Executive Director & CEO - Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC)
Part of the Spotlight on Future Cities

“Smart Cities” Must Be Low-carbon, Liveable and Connected


  1. Low-carbon, well-connected, productive and liveable smart cities are the future of the Canadian urban landscape.
  2. When it comes to building world-class public mobility infrastructure in Canada, the government and the taxpayer have a significant role to play.
  3. Canada’s expertise in R&D, AI and digital technology will ease the transition of its urban spaces into smart cities.


The government needs to align the mandates of NRCan, which invests in energy sourcing, and Transport Canada and Infrastructure Canada, which invest in infrastructure applications in transportation, and Innovation, Science & Economic Development, which invests in vehicular technology development and mobility innovation to develop a roadmap that achieves a 21stcentury energy-transportation matrix powered by new fuels and enabled by new infrastructure ensuring low-carbon smart mobility across Canada by 2030.

What is a smart city?

Simply put, a smart city is both low-carbon and connected. It has to be a low-carbon, liveable and connected community that integrates energy efficiency, productivity and liveability. Mobility plays one of the most prominent roles within the smartness of a city. If we value low-carbon, well-connected, energy efficient, productive and liveable cities, then shared mobility must be faster, smarter, cheaper and more productive than individual cars in all cases. So individual car travel would never be the preferred transport mechanism due to its energy intensity, low speed, low productivity or poor economics.

In your opinion, are Canada’s cities competitive or well-positioned globally in terms of their smartness?

No, we are not currently competitive as “smart cities”; we are eons behind for two particular reasons. First, we have a solid economy, but it is fragmented geographically and we possess a small and dispersed population. So, Canadian cities need a particular solution set that requires the government and the taxpayer to be a part of the marketplace to enable technology integration in low-density communities. We cannot leave it to Canada’s current low population density and small portion of global demand to drive innovation; to some extent we have to push out technologies that we want to lead at the forefront of Canada’s urban landscape by artificially creating new demand through positive and punitive incentives. Unfortunately, we continue to build cities driven by suburbs, cement and poorly thought-out planning that accommodates the car over shared mobility and which promotes low-density housing. We continue to promote low-density housing in a repetitive cycle of energy intensity. And we are unwilling to implement the price signals – like road pricing, or high pricing for parking spaces – that would motivate household economic decision-making to create that market pull. Meanwhile, we are often reluctant to accept the idea that the taxpayer should play a significant role in enabling transformative technologically-aware infrastructure implementations that support economic capacity and enable job growth throughout the economy.

“We continue to build cities driven by suburbs, cement and poorly thought-out planning that accommodates the car over shared mobility and which promotes low-density housing.”

Secondly, we still disregard the “smart” sectors that we are fortunate to have. We recognize our auto sector, but it is mostly composed of branch plants that do not invest the R&D dollars at the levels we hope for. We often fail to recognize the rail manufacturing and innovation sector in the country. We barely acknowledge the bus manufacturing and innovation sector. Until the federal government’s Supercluster Initiative came around last year, we did not fully recognize the artificial intelligence (AI) sector. More specifically, we still do not recognize the hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cell technology cluster in the country. Yet, multi-modal innovation, digital and software innovation, and alternative fuels innovation are all highly relevant to smart cities and Canada possesses strengths in all these areas despite the global challenges associated with its fragmented population and economy.

How can the public sector, the private sector and academia coordinate their efforts to build smarter Canadian cities?

I understand the frustration both on the private sector and the public sector sides. If our systems are too dependent on government, we are relying on bureaucrats whose feet are not to the fire – they are not motivated by profit to generate policies that will build innovative, technologically advanced cities. Therefore, things move slowly if at all. Necessity breeds innovation, but profit motivates action. We need to work with cities and provinces but we cannot rely on bureaucrats on their own to design our cities for us. This does not mean urban design should be privatized without the taxpayers’ interests at heart. It means we need to better equip our bureaucratic teams with technocratic capabilities and financial or other performance incentives. We have a history of politicizing bureaucracy; very often, people who work for the right political party or who volunteer for the right political campaign get put into senior policy or technical advisory positions for which they might be unqualified.

It is really hard to build a robust public sector or technologically advanced smart city when we disable our bureaucracy by privileging politics over technical competency, and when we do not provide bureaucrats with performance incentives, such as bonus payouts on project delivery. In my experience, in the EU, people in senior policy advisory roles often have decades of experience in relevant public agencies or private industry. We do not have that in Canada because we have much more of a loosely politically tethered appointment system. Canada can definitely do better at equipping our bureaucrats who ought to be at the forefront of innovation with the skills, capabilities, performance evaluations and financial incentives that they need to drive disruptive actions.

“It is really hard to build a robust public sector or technologically advanced smart city when we disable our bureaucracy by privileging politics over technical competency.”

Another challenge is that our Ministries of Transportation across Canada see themselves as entities procuring off-the-shelf commercial products, not as active players at the forefront of high-risk technology innovation or systems integration activities. Our Ministries of Transportation, in general, tend to think in the terms of a bus, a car, or a highway. They do not, in general, tend to think from the perspective of whole systems integration with energy, connectivity and movement of people and goods as an eco-system to be developed in tandem and in sync. So, we have not set up a huge portion of our market, which is government ministries of transportation, to be able to activate those ideas through established procurement processes. Imagine what would happen if Ministries of Transportation became “Ministries of Mobility and Movement of People, Goods and Services”. It’s a paradigm shift that innovative premiers and prime ministers will need to inspire if we want to achieve low-carbon smart mobility communities.

Another simple example of non-systems thinking in our provincial transportation ministries at the provincial level is cybersecurity. Cybersecurity threats to connected public mobility systems may risk the safety of our smart cities. That is where Canadian universities like Concordia and Windsor can lead because they have great cybersecurity teams that have been underutilized by our cities. The grid and anything connected to the grid, for transportation or mobility, is a potential site of malicious attack. Canada has many small to mid-sized enterprises that are playing in this space; they consistently complain that they are unable to get government contracts to develop their technologies into globally relevant commercial tools. More importantly, it is rare that a transportation policy for procurement or otherwise embeds systems thinking around cybersecurity at the heart of the effort. Add to this Canada’s lack of a national cybersecurity strategy and we have a recipe for failure; to the credit of the federal government, it is starting to address cybersecurity, especially at the Department of Defence. Once Canada sets cybersecurity standards across its transport and mobility systems, our smart cities will become less vulnerable to malicious attacks. But that does not solve the lack of systems-thinking at the provincial level in this regard where ministries of transportation still lag.

What advantages does Canada have when it comes to the development of smart cities?

We cannot leave it to population density and demand to drive innovation on its own; not in Canada, where our population density is too low and our demand is too small of a portion of the global whole, even in our “large” cities. To some extent we have to push out technologies that we want to lead at the forefront of Canada’s urban landscape through the artificial creation of demand through appropriate price signals. Digitization of connectivity, autonomy, vehicle communications, big data analytics and artificial intelligence do not necessarily require a big population to develop. They do, however, need to be tested and commercialized in cities around the world, and we have the capabilities for the concrete development of these technologies in Canada in Canadian cities to start with. Acting on this opportunity requires championship of push-out technologies and championship means taking on the risk – i.e. the financial risk – that sometimes leads to failures, which the taxpayer may at times need to absorb without resulting in a chill of anti-investment thereafter. That is part of being an innovative city; developing, testing, failing, and, ultimately, improving.

“We have to push out technologies that we want to lead at the forefront of Canada’s urban landscape by artificially creating new demand through positive and punitive incentives.”

Secondly, Canada can play a large role anywhere there is standardization at issue. We have the opportunity to lead in the the standardization of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications for first mile/last mile suburban solution, as well as electric bus and heavy-duty vehicle charging systems integration and clean hydrogen fuelling systems integration for heavy-duty vehicle applications. For standardization, you do not necessarily need high population density, you need champion industry partners and champion government partners working together. CUTRIC has such partners; they include companies like Bombardier, ABB, New Flyer, Nova Bus, Siemens, Thales and others, which have R&D centers in Canada. In those R&D centers that are located here, we have the ability to push forward with the standardization of advanced mobility technologies. That has a global impact because standardization opens up a whole new low-cost commercial market at a global scale, even when your local market is small.

If you had time with the Prime Minister, what would be the vision you would share with him?

The vision would be to ensure low-carbon smart mobility is ubiquitous across Canada’s major cities by 2030. It is doable if the Prime Minister would do two things in particular. First, the PM must get federal ministries to coordinate innovation strategies and funding across the fueling/energy and transportation/vehicular divide. Currently, at our federal level, the mandate of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) is frequently to look at the energy sources side of the equation, but not necessarily where the energy goes or how its integrated to other systems outcomes once it enters a propulsion system, such as vehicles across the light- and heavy-duty sectors. On the flipside, we have Transport Canada and Infrastructure Canada, which deal with off-the-shelf procurements of buses and fleet vehicles or regulatory frameworks for those commercial vehicles, but which do not connect to the fueling side or systems integration of the equation – although this is starting to change vis-à-vis automated vehicle systems. Concomitantly, we have Innovation, Science & Economic Development(ISED) focused – historically – on automotive, rail and aerospace vehicular applications, and not on bus, coach, or alternative mobility modes that are traditionally viewed as “municipal transit”. We have to get rid of these divides between the energy side, the transportation side and the technology innovation side of the advanced mobility triangle in government; it is hindering our federal government’s ability to innovate a low-carbon smart mobility future. An alignment of the mandates and vision of ISED, NRCan, Transport Canada and Infrastructure Canada is necessary for comprehensive and smart policies.

“The PM must get federal ministries to coordinate innovation strategies and funding across the fueling/energy and transportation/vehicular divide.”

Second, the PM must create a new Ministry of Big Cities. Canada’s biggest cities – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and others – have special needs vis-à-vis low-carbon smart mobility; they will necessarily be the primary test sites for these technologies and they need representation at the top, not least because their municipal taxpayers will bear the brunt of investment in a space that benefits all of Canada. Despite the constitutional division that puts cities in the hands of provinces, it is insufficient in the 21stcentury to leave municipal mobility systems innovation thinking – and “smart cities” development overall – to provinces alone. National representation for specialized funding and consideration in big cities is needed. This is not unfair to Canadians living outside the big cities. It is realistically representative of how these technologies will need to be developed through big cities before they can support mid- and small-city integrations over the long-term.

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Josipa Petrunic
Executive Director & CEO - Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC)

Josipa Petrunic is leading the formulation of several national transportation technology trials related to zero-emissions transportation and “smart vehicles” innovation, including the Pan-Canadian Electric Bus Demonstration & Integration Trial, the Pan-Canadian Hydrogen Fuel Cell Demonstration & Integration Trial, and the National Smart Vehicle Demonstration Project. Dr. Petrunic previously served as the lead researcher in electric vehicle policy studies at McMaster University, and as a senior research fellow at University College London (UCL) in Science and Technology Studies. She continues to lecture in Globalization Studies at McMaster University and in interdisciplinary research methods at Athabasca University.

Canadian Urban Transit Research & Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC) is a member-based industry-led organization including more than 100 private and public sector companies and organizations across Canada. It partners stakeholders in the transit, transportation and integrated mobility sectors in the pursuit of collaborative research, development and demonstration (RD&D) projects with academia.