Forget smart cities, this Toronto-based project is the future of urban innovation

The future of urban living certainly sounds rosy, but what are the pitfalls we need to avoid?

29 Aug 2018
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Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront district is hundreds of acres of former ports and warehouses – but soon it will be flooded with self-driving cars, sustainable housing and public spaces. That’s the plan according to Google’s Sidewalk Labs, which is redeveloping the area into a living lab to trial its smart-city tech.

Just don’t call it a “smart city”.

Nowhere in the release documents – yes, new neighbourhoods have those these days – does Sidewalk Labs mention the phrase, instead favouring “urban innovation”. No wonder, with Tom Saunders, principal researcher at innovation think tank Nesta, saying: “A lot of people have moved beyond using that term... it comes from a bit of a corporate world of Big Data and sensors and things like that.”

Futurist Tom Cheesewright prefers the idea of “living cities”, which he defines as a city that has some intelligence and senses. “There are few fully functional smart cities, if any,” he said. “I think what we’re really talking about is the application of technology to solve problems.”

The idea of building a perfectly connected city from the ground up, or retroactively fitting existing spaces with sensors, appears to have faded, giving way to the use of specific surveillance techniques – such as around transport – paired with smartphones. Look at the London Underground: it tracked commuters using the Wi-Fi on their own phones to figure out which routes they take during busy times, in the hope of reducing congestion.

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That means Sidewalk Toronto is an interesting experiment, Cheesewright said – but that’s all it is. “You have to think of that development as a big laboratory rather than a city. It’s not going to behave anything like a normal city would,” he told Alphr. “I don’t want to knock it too much… we need these experiments to work out what is realistic elsewhere.”

Bristol Is Open and CityVerve in Manchester are taking similar routes, offering their cities up as testbeds to trial tech solutions for everything from air pollution to in-home care for the elderly, using streams of data to look for solutions.

Urban innovation, or a data-led smart city?

Regardless of what term you use to describe the combination of Big Data, sensors and machine learning applied as solutions to urban problems, the technical aspects are increasingly simple, noted Cheesewright. Sensors are “quite straightforward” and shuffling their data is simple thanks to near-ubiquitous connectivity. “The whole city of Santander with about 20,000 sensors stores something like 10MB a day – it’s really a small amount of data,” he said.

The challenge is to make sense of the data. “For the really simple applications like emptying bins when they’re full or turning off lights when they’re not needed or only watering lawns when they’re dry, you’re talking about a very small amount of intelligence and technology,” Cheesewright said.

If the tech is simple, why do so many smart cities fall by the wayside? “Don’t try and retrofit a whole layer of technologies just to solve these problems before doing anything else – that’s when you build up enormous expectations and deliver things very slowly,” Cheesewright warned.

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Instead, solve meaningful problems on a case-by-case basis. “The much more challenging part is about building a solution that suits the citizen and the city,” he said. “And that’s where most smart cities are tending to fall down.”

What Sidewalk Labs is promising

Starting with a few streets now redubbed Quayside, Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront district is becoming a test ground for Sidewalk Labs, but what does that mean?

“This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world,” said Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, in a statement at the project’s launch.

Residents can ditch their cars, trading in their personal vehicles for a mix of walking, cycling, public transport and self-driving tech. This creates “a mobility system that is safer and more convenient than the private car at much lower cost,” its website claims. Plus, all the roads and parking can be redeveloped as public space.

At the heart of the system is, of course, digital infrastructure, which will offer “new insights on the urban environment” – a pretty way of saying that there will be lots of sensors slurping up data. Plus, the site will feature “climate-positive energy systems”, such as solar panels.

Sound expensive? Sidewalk Labs is pledging that improvements in construction and flexible building design will mean more affordable housing – but it’s usually not the materials of your home that drives gentrification, but the desirability of the neighbourhood. As the Eastern Waterfront is currently an area of deprivation, Sidewalk needs to tread carefully to ensure its grand visions aren’t another way of pushing out existing residents.

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Is a data-led society right for the people?

A driverless car that arrives right at your door, bang on time. A home that’s energy neutral, so no power bills. Ubiquitous connectivity, meaning that you’re never out of range. Depending on your perspective, that’s either heavenly or dystopian.

To start, there’s the data question; Sidewalk Toronto hasn’t broken ground and it already has a privacy policy, but there’s more to considering the human element than ensuring protections against higher powers documenting every step we take.

“Riding in a self-driving car, inhabiting in a reconfigurable housing unit, even disposing of domestic trash will generate information that can in turn be used to run the system better. However, how should such data be used?” asked architect and engineer Carlo Ratti, the founding partner of CRA design and innovation office and director of the MIT Senseable City Lab.

“If opened up, data can empower people to better understand their lives and change their behaviour. However, top-down urban analytics can be detrimental: it can uniform behaviour and might hamper the healthy serendipity that makes a city.”

Ratti points to Brasilia, the Brazilian capital designed in one go by “a single architectural hand” with standardised solutions for every inhabitant leading to “impractical monotony”. Traffic jams are frequent, pedestrians unheard of, and the edge of the city highlights the disparity between the poverty-stricken areas at its outskirts and the modernist masterpieces at its centre. We don’t all act the same, and planners – be they at Sidewalk Labs or the City of Toronto – would be wise to heed that lesson.

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Indeed, the very way cities evolve through human interaction needs to be considered by tech firms, said Ratti. “Cities by nature are open platform, which come into existence through a myriad of individual, bottom-up accretive actions,” he said. “The idea of open platforms – generally speaking – is sometimes at odds with the approach of IT companies, which are used to top-down approaches using proprietary protocols.

“The main challenge is probably to recognise this very basic principle of urban culture – and put it at the foundation of Sidewalk Toronto and other similar initiatives around the world.”

Why should cities become smart?

In the end, the challenge is to define the purpose of a smart city. For Sidewalk, it’s about testing its tech. British councils may be looking to cut their budget burdens, but it’s time such ideas start to focus on improving urban life. “I would say that the goal should always be to offer a better quality of life to citizens,” Ratti said.

But that’s not always the case, said Cheesewright. “In an ideal solution, technology is applied to improve the quality of life or start to address some of the people who are not well served by cities,” he said. “But generally, it’s the application to solve economic or environmental problems.”

Of course, it’s always worthwhile testing new technologies and cutting emissions, waste and costs. Management of bin collection, street lighting, where to park your car in town, and other small projects all address such issues, while also making a city more liveable for the humans that dwell there.

As Nesta’s Saunders puts it: “The key to thinking about smart cities isn’t focusing about the flashy tech, but asking: what are the problems?” And for true urban innovation, the answer may not be “smart”.