Vancouver company Wavefront aims to create "smart cities"—and help environmental sustainability

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      What do self-driving cars, lighting that adapts to people walking past, and zero-emission vehicles have in common? They’re all technologies that will revolutionize our urban centres—and they’re all about to launch into the mainstream. In other words, we’re on the cusp of living in “smart cities”.

      Why do we need to adopt those transformations? Right now, 3.7 billion people—more than half the world’s population—call a city home. According to conservative estimates, that number is set to double by 2050—so if you think the traffic is bad now, just wait another thirty years. As more and more people move into urban areas, greater burdens are placed on the physical and digital infrastructure of cities.

      It’s not all bad news, though. That pressure is encouraging numerous companies to come up with interesting tech solutions to improve vital factors like light pollution, reducing energy usage in buildings, and dealing with our wastewater—all important for reducing costs, pollution, and emissions.

      Despite their applicability, however, those businesses often find it hard to connect with the city officials who can implement their solutions—and that’s where Vancouver company Wavefront comes in. Creating a forum for businesses to showcase their products, the not-for-profit organization links urban decision makers with tech creators.

      “Wavefront is an organization that focuses on three things,” CEO James Maynard tells the Straight on the line from his office. “One is that we help small early-stage companies get started by helping them focus their ideas and energy. Secondly, we help those companies who are little down the road grow in size. The third is to help larger organizations take advantage of all the innovation that’s coming out of small companies. All the businesses we deal with are looking at how to use wireless technology creatively. Together, we aim to help advance the digital economy in Vancouver, British Columbia, and across Canada—and on this project, to identify the needs of cities and match them to emerging technologies.”

      For Maynard, it was an obvious choice for Wavefront to focus on smart cities. An important player in helping advance the Internet of Things—a network that connects the computers embedded in everyday objects—the company realized how linking everything from heating and air conditioning machines to sensors in parkades and population density counters can help better use our finite energy resources. In other words, Wavefront wants smart cities to help the planet become more sustainable.

      “If we just switch to smart lighting, we can have a direct reduction of our environmental impact,” Maynard says. “If you build a smart building, you can probably take 20 per cent out of a city’s carbon footprint. By putting that same infrastructure in place, it becomes a better place to work, a better place to live, and—because most of our economic activity comes from cities—a better place to generate business.”

      Linking together companies and city officials at a recent conference, Wavefront put its philosophy into action. Inviting B.C. tech organizations to discuss their innovations with representatives from the City of Vancouver and the City of San Diego—chosen for its sociological, cultural, and ecological similarities to the Canadian hub—over 100 people came together to discuss best practices and shared opportunities.

      “One of the most important things in the startup economy is being able to connect the needs of the customers with the capabilities and vision of a small company,” Maynard says. “What we were able to do in that room was allow San Diego and the City of Vancouver talk about what their needs were, and some of the issues that they wrestle with. Then we had large and small businesses discuss their experiences. Out of that came a shared understanding of how we can capitalize on opportunities and solutions to help those companies become successful, and how we can help markets all over the world.”

      As with anything associated with the Internet of Things, there are potential challenges. In October last year, for instance, hackers took over devices connected to the IoT by using their unchanged default passwords, and used that powerful network to bring down websites like Twitter, PayPal, Spotify, Netflix, and other giants. Nevertheless, Maynard is convinced that, if done properly, the Internet of Things will transform our future for the better.

      “We obviously have to be careful,” he says. “Issues over identity and identification and technologies like blockchain will grow in parallel with smarter cities, so we always have to be thoughtful about these things. But the net result of what we can do for urban centres will be positive.

      “In the last 10 years, Wavefront has connected with somewhere between 800 and 1,000 companies,” he continues. “In the last five years, we’ve created 7,000 jobs, mostly in B.C. I think we’re just getting started. What we’re seeing is larger organizations coming to us, saying ‘Can you help us work with these companies?’. I’m really optimistic about the opportunities that are ahead of us, and how that can help sustainability.”

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays