At this year’s CES, there were more vendors listed as selling smart-cities technologies than gaming products. According to research firm Gartner, smart cities will house 9.7 billion IoT devices by 2020, with more vendors than ever exploring new business opportunities in smart city development, home security, and healthcare.
2018 could very well become known as the year of the smart city, as global populations continue their migration into tech-heavy urban centers that harness the power of the IoT to meet the needs and demands of their citizens. As greater interconnectivity comes to define urban landscapes everywhere, smart cities will move out of the realm of science fiction and become an everyday reality, as millions everywhere experience the benefit of living in an IoT-dominated landscape for the first time.
For example, Barcelona saves $58 million annually using smart water meter technology. The city of Songdo, in Incheon, South Korea, has cut energy and water use by 30% compared to what a similarly sized city would use without smart features, and has reduced what operating costs would normally be by regulating electricity and water usage in buildings. Chicago uses predictive analytics to determine where to place bait for rats, by listing which dumpsters are most likely to be overflowing. The city is now 20% more efficient in controlling rats.
Perhaps no other project in the world has drawn as much curiosity as Quayside: a 12-acre slice of Toronto waterfront in line to be developed by Sidewalk Labs, the urban tech-focused subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet. Launched in 2015 by CEO Dan Doctoroff and a number of other Michael Bloomberg affiliates, Sidewalk Labs primarily focused on turning the patch of city-owned land into what it calls the “world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.”
Sidewalk Labs reimagined five aspects of urban life—housing, energy, mobility, social services, and shared public spaces.
A self-contained thermal grid would recirculate energy from non-fossil-fuel sources to heat and cool buildings, while a food disposal system would keep garbage out of landfills. For cars and trucks, Quayside would be less hospitable: part of the neighborhood would prohibit non-emergency vehicles entirely, while bike-share stations, transit stops, and cycling & walking paths—kept useable through the Canadian winter with sidewalk snow melters and automated awnings—would offer “efficient alternatives to driving, all at lower cost than owning a car.” An autonomous transit shuttle would rove some streets.
Sidewalk’s analysis suggests that managing wind, sun, and precipitation can double the number of daylight hours when it is comfortable to be outside: “awnings that block rain, physical structures that block wind during the winter but not during the summer, and sun shades can all add significantly to the daytime and evening hours when the experienced temperature feels comfortable to most people.
Buildings would be largely pre-fabricated, using eco-friendly materials, to cut back on waste. With a “strong shell and minimalistic interior,” they could be adapted to multiple uses, morphing from residential to retail to industrial, and back again: “this flexibility will allow for easy modifications to match evolving style preferences and floor-plan reconfigurations to serve changing space needs. With sufficient ease of adjustment, a company could reconfigure a space to accommodate a weeklong training seminar and then return it to offices or small conference rooms […] A family might decide to subdivide a room to accommodate a visitor staying for a few months, or, they might recycle and exchange modular components when a room no longer meets their needs.”
To support such a futuristic vision, Quayside would test a novel “outcome-based” zoning code focused on limiting things like pollution and noise, rather than specific land uses. If it doesn’t bother the neighbors, one might operate a whiskey distillery in the middle of an apartment complex.
Sidewalk Labs promises to embed all sorts of sensors everywhere possible, sucking up a constant stream of information about traffic flow, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, travel patterns, and waste output. Cameras will help the company nail down the more intangible: are people enjoying this public furniture arrangement in that green space? Are residents using the popup clinic when flu season strikes? Is that corner the optimal spot for a grocery store? Are its shoppers locals or people coming in from outside the neighborhood?
Sidewalk Labs seems well aware of the foibles of technologists building cities, the arrogant optimism that comes with seeing a place and deciding you can do it much better by razing it to the ground and remaking it. The company insists that this redevelopment will be extremely thoughtful” “this is not some random activity from our perspective,” Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt said, “This is the culmination, from our side, of almost 10 years of thinking about how technology can improve people’s lives.”
Sidewalk Labs’ data scientists will analyze the torrent of data to figure out what’s working and what’s not. It says it will use sophisticated modeling techniques to simulate “what-if scenarios” and determine better courses of action—no one’s using that park bench, but what if we moved it to a sunnier corner of the park?—“Sidewalk expects that many residents, in general, will be attracted by the idea of living in a place that will continuously improve,” the company writes in its project proposal.
Technology Sidewalk Labs Is Using to Make Current Cities Smarter
Follow Sidewalk Labs’ blog to learn about the numerous things the company is working on to make cities better.
In the 1970s, almost 30 percent of Americans reported that they frequently spent time with neighbors, with just 20 percent saying they spent none. Today, those numbers are reversed, according to a 2015 report from City Observatory, with time spent with neighbors at an all-time low. As Marc Dunkelman, author of the 2014 book The Vanishing Neighbor, has put it, neighbors in the early-to-mid 20th century “depended on one another much more.”
Park Time is a prototype app that notifies parents when another family enters a nearby park. Parents at home with a child might get the message and head over to the park; those parents at a nearby park can change plans to meet with other families. The idea is to encourage physical connections without having to instigate a connection before leaving the house—a light, passive, digital nudge creating the chance to socialize.
When we look ahead to the future of urban mobility, we often think back to the challenge of coordinating air travel in the mid-20th century. In the 1950s, it took a dozen people 15 steps and three hours just to process a simple round-trip reservation for a major airline. It was an expensive process for companies to operate and a frustrating one for the average person to navigate.
People living and working in cities today have more options than ever to get around, from existing modes like cars, buses, and trains to emerging services like bike-share, car-share, and ride-hail. But real-time information about all these options isn’t widely available. Navigation apps typically don’t offer a full menu of travel options; some do provide the ability to search options but don’t let you book them in-app. It’s also a challenge to integrate these services with the parking spots, loading zones, and the other types of transportation infrastructure found in cities.
That’s why Sidewalk Labs created Coord, a platform that makes it easy for companies creating and offering digital navigation tools to integrate real-time information about new modes of transportation and to facilitate transactions. Coord provides software developers with access to APIs (basically, code that’s designed to be easy for other computer systems to talk to) for data on tolls, curbs, and parking in cities across the U.S., with more options like bike-share to come.
By serving as the coordination layer for new mobility services, navigation tools, and urban infrastructure, Coord can help unlock a seamless trip experience for people in cities and inspire new solutions to urban mobility challenges. Coord can help a ride-hail service reduce curbside congestion by enabling it to locate a legal pick-up or drop-off zone. It can help a navigation app feature trip options that users can book in-app, including a nearby bike-share dock. It can help a car-share service bill members for tolls in real-time, giving people a better sense of the true cost of their trip.
For More Information
You can contact Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, directly on reddit and ask him anything about the project.
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