Sensors, scandal and sustainability: Inside the San Francisco smart city being built from scratch on an abandoned naval yard
By Vaughn Highfield
Bosch is building the smart city on Hunters Point and believes its expertise makes it perfect for building a community of the future
On the southwest side of San Francisco, with a view out onto the bay, lies the old US naval shipyard in Hunters Point. Stretching down to the city’s old Candlestick Park stadium, this former naval base is home to the multi-billion dollar SF Shipyard project, designed to pave the way for smart cities the world over.
“A smart community with 12,000 new homes and 4 million square feet for shops, bars, restaurants and offices”
The end result should be a smart community with 12,000 new homes and 4 million square feet for shops, bars, restaurants and offices. The whole space will draw upon an eco-grid utilising clean and renewable energy to power itself. Properties will be decked out with solar panels and will utilise wind and geothermal heat too. The entire site is also said to responsibly recycle water, a boon for the drought-laden Californian region where usable water is a scarce resource.
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Constructing a smart community
Compared to the smart city initiatives taking place in Singapore, the Shipyard project is a very different proposition. This is a private enterprise by Californian housing company FivePoint in partnership with Bosch; one that undertakes the task of building private homes and retail units, not for San Francisco’s municipal government nor the state of California.
It’s a utopia of sorts, a model for how the future of cities will be built. But building a smart city isn’t the same as developing a smart community and it comes with its own problems. For example, the Shipyard project has already been delayed due to the US Navy allegedly faking soil samples on part of the site FivePoint plans to use – a site previously used to decontaminate US Naval ships that had been exposed to nuclear radiation.
Yet despite these delays, the project raises interesting questions around how to really build a smart community and city, and if starting from scratch somewhere new really is the best option.
“There are very few cities out there built from scratch,” Bosch’s Stefan Hartung tells me. “Many of these smart city projects are announced as new cities, but most cities on the planet aren’t built new.
“When building from scratch, like the San Francisco Shipyard project, there are things you can consider from the start, but it’s still going to take 12 to 15 years to make it happen. There are always things that you don’t even know about. In general, be it on greenfield or brownfield sites, whatever vision you have [for a smart city] it comes down to enhancing or improving a city and the lives of its inhabitants.”
The perfect smart city, and in turn Bosch and FivePoint’s final vision for the Shipyard project, is one where the city itself communicates with its constituent parts. Much like Shipyard’s community app that encourages self-regulation of its members, a smart city should keep itself in check as it grows and evolves.
The lampost outside your house should talk to the car parked beneath, which, in turn, is talking to your smart speaker or app, telling it (and you) how much battery power is left. Meanwhile, your chosen AI assistant is sharing calendar information so it knows when you’ll likely need to be drive again. Your home is also a place that generates and stores electricity, monitoring just how much power you’ll need to run your own home while acting as a microgrid for nearby properties, or car chargers that could tap into your stored power when you’re not using it.
Underpinning the organisation of Shipyard is a Bosch-made community app. Here, homeowners and renters can see transportation timetables, what shops are nearby, and even how busy they are and their general opening times.
As well as its green credentials, SF Shipyard comes with a very 21st-century approach to surveillance. Residents of the futuristic community will be able to track their community lives via an app, moving the idea of neighbourhood watch from community halls to an always-on digital space.
In a somewhat unsettling vision, the app additionally allows users to report on other’s anti-social behaviours and record crimes. Residents will be able to upload photos to a database for on-site security guards to review and act upon. Supporting the guards will be smart security cameras that use intelligent video analytics to report suspicious activity. These cameras can spot patterns and shifty behaviour, recognising faces of suspected repeat-offenders and will allow on-site security to resolve potential problems before they even happen – like a Precog from Minority Report.
Yet, this technology is also a way to safely track their neighbours – with their permission – to “walk them home” if they’re alone at night.
This may sound like something out of the pages of a Philip K Dick or J G Ballard novel, but the developers believe these measures are necessary to create a safe community in an area with a history of assaults and theft.
A technical proposition
Helping build smart cities and communities around the world is certainly a big project to undertake, and Bosch may not seem like the most obvious contender. To many, the company isn’t much more than a consumer goods company that produces vacuum cleaners, ovens, power tools and coffee machines. In reality, that’s only one aspect of its business.
Bosch’s bread and butter is in sensor production, with many sensors starting life inside a plethora of the world’s best-selling cars. The company’s technology extends to the smartphones and laptops you’re reading this article on. It likely has sensors embedded into most of the electronics in your home – even more if you’re already kitted out with a smart home.
“The core of the company is the idea that we generate technologies that lead to innovation,” Hartung continues. “Smart cities as a narrative is an important one for us as it brings together technologies from our various domains into a single context.”
As far as Hartung is concerned, simply bringing all of Bosch’s technologies together isn’t enough to really offer up a path to smart-city or smart-community development. “It’s not a technocratic approach, nor are we saying there’s a single platform or sole technology that makes up a ‘smart city’.”
“Smart city projects have to be a dialogue of give and take around ideas, technologies and opportunities”
Smart cities need to be tailored to the people living within them; it’s not something you can just simply build up out of the ground and start afresh, it needs to absorb the culture of the city they’re in. “In the UK you’ll want a different life than, say, those in southern France. Smart city projects have to be a dialogue of give and take around ideas, technologies and opportunities”
Ultimately Bosch seems to believe that there’s no point investing in smart city technologies unless it really has a knock-on benefit to the people living in these new communities.
“One of our guiding principles is, yes let’s apply technology as much as it remains fruitful to achieving our goals,” Hartung states. “Our primary goal, however, is to always make a city a better place to live.”
Unfortunately, as nice as a smart community could be to live in, a privately owned and built community like the Shipyard project isn’t going to be accessible to all. In an ideal world, FivePoint’s glorious utopian community, complete with bustling streets, smart vehicles and a whole manner of eateries that San Francisco’s socialites will love to frequent, should be for everyone. In reality, it could be a hard sell in a city where people earning near $150,000 a year can’t afford to live.
It’s no secret San Francisco has a housing problem. During my visit to the project we pass many people living out of their cars or small motorhomes. The approach to the hill on Hunter’s Point, where my tour of the site began, clearly isn’t an area you should be walking around alone, with one taxi driver even stating that the project kicked out many needy individuals from their homes to so they could begin work.
Despite the allure of the region’s big tech companies, Google, Facebook, Apple, LinkedIn etc can’t pay many of its employees the wages that living in San Francisco demands.
After setbacks around faked US Navy’s nuclear testing results nearly derailed the project, San Francisco’s own government office has been working hard to ensure land usage will benefit the most citizens it can upon completion.
As a result, there are plans to integrate as much “affordable” housing into the project as possible. These houses will come with a price tag of $500,000 to $800,000, which may not sound all that affordable, but in San Francisco, it really is. Because prices are so low, compared to the rest of the city where your average one-bedroom condo can still go for well over $1 million, people are paying more than the going rate to snap up a house.
All of these hurdles, plus concerns from nearby citizens, the project is still years away from full completion – estimated to be 2028 before the recent delays to development. Hopefully, the whole projects is future-facing enough that, by the time it is finally finished, it won’t already be an outdated smart community in need of a firmware update.