In October last year, something happened that could change humanity’s urban way of life in a way as profound as the widespread introduction of efficient sewerage systems or connection to electric grid. Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, won the bid for a 12-acre ‘pilot’ phase of the 750-acre regeneration project of Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront. The plan is for Quayside, as the pilot phase of the project is to be known, to be the first fully-integrated ‘smart’ city neighbourhood in the world.
Sidewalk Labs, founded in 2015, is a part of Alphabet, Google’s parent company. It’s described as an ‘urban innovation organisation’ with the goal ‘to improve urban infrastructure through technological solutions, and tackle issues such as cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage’. Along with ‘Project Wing’, which is working on delivery drones and Calico, focused on ‘life extension’, Sidewalk Labs is one of Alphabet’s standalone ‘moonshot’ companies. If Quayside is a success, Sidewalk Labs could very quickly find itself propelled from ‘moonshot’ to a company rivalling Google itself.
The Development of ‘Smart Cities’
It’s not the first time a new urban development has had ambitions to harness the latest technology in the world to create a ‘smart city’. South Korea has tech city “Songdo”, located just outside of Seoul. It’s fully connected, is monitored by a camera system and garbage is sent from homes directly to an underground sorting centre, taking noisy and dirty refuse collection out of the equation. However, it’s very expensive to live there, is described as a bit soulless and take-up has generally been slow.
Singapore uses a network of sensors to track energy consumption and waste creation. There are plans for every vehicle in the city to be integrated into a GPS-tracking system. Barcelona is also using an array of the latest technology to track air quality, free parking spaces and how much rubbish is in public bins. Saudi Arabia recently announced plans for Neom, a ‘smart’ megalopolis straddling an area bigger than Slovenia on the Red Sea coasts of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
Google’s Sidewalk Labs Plans to Do Smart Cities Smarter
However, ‘smart’ cities are currently either early-stage concepts or, like Songdo, relatively small and a bit like a struggling out-of-town gated community. There isn’t a really ‘smart’ city or neighbourhood that genuinely feels like an actual part of a real urban setting. Sidewalk Labs’ ambition is for Sidewalk Toronto to change that. The company believes that the way to achieve that is to combine the latest technology in the world of IoT with that of sustainable construction. It must also be flexible and able to be adapted to future needs, such as building interiors being created so their utility can be cheaply repurposed. It is hoped this will avoid the risk of the area becoming a white elephant.
Key to the project’s success is considered to be affordability and a natural urban mix of inhabitants. This would mean subsidised and social renters as well as private renters and home owners. Social diversity is believed to be key if the new community is to flourish. French media Le Monde described South Korea’s Songdo as a ‘half empty ghetto for the affluent’. Gated communities have a market but the majority of people still want to feel like they are a part of the wider ‘real world’. Quayside’s ambition is to combine the latest technology in the world with environmental sustainability and a balanced and diverse urban community spanning socio-economic stratums.
Reducing cars to a minimum is also central to plans. Non-emergency vehicles will be banned from the majority of the neighbourhood, with the rest exclusive to autonomous and shared vehicles. Parking will be provided in a ‘transition zone’ on the edge of the area for those who wish to retain a private car for travel outside of the neighbourhood.
Encouraging cycling will also be integral to how the roads network and technology is set up. Heated cycle lanes that will provide some protection from the elements and melt snow in winter are one proposal – it is Canada! Taking the lead from a highly successful system already operational in Copenhagen, Denmark, another proposal that is likely to become a reality are ‘adaptive traffic lights’. These smart traffic lights are able to identify and prioritise cyclists at busy junctions. Copenhagen’s ‘green-wave’ system means cyclists traveling at 20 kilometres per hour are given green lights all the way into the city centre. This means cycling is generally faster than driving, encouraging more people to use pedal power.
A Smart-City’s Three Layers: Infrastructure, Life and Tech
Sidewalk’s smart city is envisioned as consisting of three levels. The ground level and buildings will be the ‘alive’ public realm. Below that will be a level of unobtrusive tunnels and utility channels which will host Quayside’s infrastructure. The third layer, which will be integrated rather than a distinct ‘level’, refers to the tech. Sensors and software will monitor, control and refine the city’s systems and residents will log in and ‘manage’ their public and private data.
This leads on to the question of privacy, which will understandably be a key concern for potential citizens of a living environment designed and managed by a company that belongs to a group whose primary revenue stream is advertising. Sidewalk Labs, it appears, fully appreciates this. Chief Policy Officer Rit Aggarwala insists the data capture around Quayside will be kept to a ‘bare minimum’. For example, cameras that form part of operating systems that need to detect human presence will strip footage down to a human outline if that’s all that is needed for the operation. However, many are sceptical and believe for fuller ‘smart’ functionality individuals will be tracked on some level by camera and sensor surveillance.
Aggarwala himself accepts that much of the tech the neighbourhood will use still doesn’t exist, or is expensive and impractical, and Sidewalk will have to develop it. An integral part of that process will be balancing utility and privacy. Cesar Cerrudo, founder of the not-for-profit Securing Smart Cities sees this as the biggest problem Quayside will face. He believes the political and democratic questions around security and privacy will need to be backed by both residents and local and national government, which “could be very bureaucratic”.
Sidewalk believes that transparency and robust checks and balances are placed on data privacy will allow them to manage the issue. Creating the necessary ‘trust’ will involve independent cybersecurity experts.
Can Technology Experts Really do Urban Planning?
Building great software and tech more generally is undoubtedly what Alphabet and its daughter companies do best. However, when new software is being built the ‘agile’ approach of releasing a beta version and then fixing mistakes, testing different options and building on top of the frame is effective. It’s not so simple when an entire city neighbourhood is being built from scratch, including infrastructure, roads, buildings, public spaces and the systems that make them all function together. Of course, things can be improved and further developed but you can’t a/b test traffic systems to see which one works best in a way that could prove fatal if there’s a ‘bug’ in one.
Quayside is a chance for Sidewalk to have carte blanche to build a huge, experimental infrastructure from the ground up. A clean slate can make many things easier to implement but the sheer scale of choice variations and their combinations makes the project in many ways much harder than upgrading an existing building or neighbourhood.
To a large extent, Google helped build the internet as we know it today. However, Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront is likely to prove to be the technology giant’s greater challenge. If Sidewalk Labs pulls it off though, we could soon be living in cities with clean air, water, no congestion and full of kids again playing in the streets. Is that a price worth paying for our behavioural data being uploaded to the cloud, hopefully, relatively anonymously? That’s an ethical debate likely to be one of the most ferocious we’ve seen in our lifetimes over the next couple of decades.