We’ve all heard of ‘smart’ phones, ‘smart’ speakers, even ‘smart’ lightbulbs, where a device is drastically enhanced by technological features, such as access to the internet or Bluetooth, or a touchscreen interface. These smart devices are all designed with the goal of improving our daily lives. Well, now the same can be said about ‘smart’ cities.
Alphabet Inc, owned by Google, has teamed up with Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto to build their own ‘Smart City’ in Quayside in downtown Toronto, Canada.
a ‘Smart City’?
A ‘smart city’ follows the same guidelines as any smart device, but to a much grander scale. There are multiple cases of smart cities already, each very different. In Toronto’s case, they plan on installing advanced infrastructures and monitoring data throughout the city; using it improve the economy, the lives of civilians, and the environment.
This project has the potential to do wonders for the environment, especially in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Charlotte Mathews, director of sustainability for Sidewalks Labs explains that “In downtown Toronto, greenhouse gas emissions per person are about 6.3 tons (annually). We believe we can get that down to just under one ton.”
The current amount of greenhouse gas emissions urgently needs to decrease, as U.N scientists are now saying that we have just over a decade to get climate change under control before it’s too late.
To make things worse, take into account the population growth. According to the U.N., urban areas contribute to 55% of the earth’s population, which is estimated to grow to 68% by 2050. So just imagine all those extra people and their impact on the environment.
How is it going to help the environment?
Sidewalk Labs plan to collect general, anonymous data from every possible opportunity, and use it to the benefit of the city and the environment.
For example, buildings will include sensors to monitor temperatures, and automatically adjust the heating and cooling systems throughout the day in order to conserve energy. Buildings will also use a thermal grid that doesn’t require fossil fuels to run, and use clean energy sources such as waste heat and geothermal; producing less greenhouse gasses emissions. Environmentalism aside, just imagine how much this could help save on electricity bills.
Quayside will have heated sidewalks designed to melt away snow and ice during winter, allowing more people to walk or ride their bikes rather than driving around and producing pollution. Data collection is essential to identify when and where these heating systems are most needed, determined via weather and most trafficked areas. Waterfront Toronto also intend for “intensified transit connectivity”, where if more people can collectively use public transport, it could reduce the pollution produced from cars.
The company plans to dig out an underground system beneath the city streets to protect tree roots, allowing trees to grow bigger and healthier, and creating more greenery than you’d find in most cities. Waterfront Toronto boasts using “soil cell technology to help [tree] roots to spread and thrive, keeping them healthy as they grow to full maturity” consequentially providing fresher air and pleasing atmosphere to the city’s inhabitants.
The city will provide industrial robots to collect your garbage. Digital systems will be installed to monitor what citizens dispose of, alerting them if they are producing too much rubbish, or if they throw something away into the wrong bin (e.g. food into
The Cherry Street Stormwater Management Facility will be a treatment plant designed to protect “local ecosystems by treating runoff before it enters the lake”. Aimed for completion in 2020, the system will clean out stormwater before returning it to the natural water sources, by removing “oil and sediment, and [using] ultraviolet light to disrupt harmful bacteria”.
Sidewalk Labs promises a similar, ‘Smart Water System’, a district stormwater system that will use water sensors to “enable active management for greater resiliency”.
Using renewable energy sources throughout the city, Waterfront Toronto claims their neighbourhoods have displayed “exceptional performance in energy consumption, low carbon emissions and reduced waste generation”. This has in turn resulted in “40% energy cost savings”. A large renewable energy source will come from solar power, where rooftop solar panels will store energy from the sun throughout the day and then circulate the power throughout the city at night.
Waterfront Toronto has already begun to aid the environment in this project. While building the WaveDecks (wooden public spaces built along the waterfront of Toronto), the company “enhanced the marine habitat underneath by installing a variety of structures underneath” to “support plant growth and increase shelter and foraging opportunities”. As a result, the fish species have increased dramatically in number and diversity in the last ten years.
For those with little interest in the effects of the environment, this city still has a lot to offer you.
Sidewalk Labs aim to build a “fully connected neighbourhood and a testbed for digital innovations”. The entire city will be provided with “100% coverage of WIFI and 5g networks for all residents, businesses and public spaces.” They also plan for widespread digital infrastructure, including “universal fiber, power and mounts provided to enable open access to icommunity and entrepreneurs”.
Installing multiple cameras in public places, Sidewalk Labs speak of alleviating traffic congestion by using computer programming to analyse traffic patterns. Cameras embedded in the traffic lights would be able to register the speed of vehicles and forecast accidents. This is hoped to increase road safety and create a more walkable city, meanwhile reducing traffic congestion.
Waterfront Toronto promises 25 hectares of new parks and public spaces, such as the aforementioned WaveDecks, or Corktown Common, an active park named as “Toronto’s best new public space”. There are plenty of opportunity for residents to ride bikes or jog, using The Bentway or the Martin Goodman Trail.
Quayside will also offer more affordable housing, requiring that with almost 5,500 new residential units, “20% of all residential units to be affordable rental housing, and an additional 5% to be low-end-of-the-market ownership”. Imagine getting to move to such an advanced city like this for cheaper than your current house?
Critics of the project argue that the intensive data collection required to achieve all the above would result in a serious invasion in privacy.
But residents choosing to live in Quayside will be made fully aware of anytime their behaviours might be monitored. Sidewalk Labs are currently in the process of developing visual cues for proper signage to help indicate to the city’s inhabitants when any system might be tracking their actions.
Additionally, this public data will all be stored anonymously, completely separate from any identity. The city will not be able to access your private information without your permission, and any information you choose to give will be stored safely and securely.
“We understand that people’s individual rights to the information is going to be paramount”, says Alyssa Harvey Dawson, Sidewalk Labs head of legal.
Chief policy officer Rit Aggarwala announced that the company had heard these criticisms “loud and clear”, and are doing all they can to ensure the safety and security of Quayside’s citizens.
Hope for the Next Generation
Creating a forward-thinking utopia like Quayside is sure to come with its challenges, but it’s clearly a step in the right direction. A future with heated sidewalks and autonomous cars should welcome this advancement in technology on such an impressive scale.
With all the damage that has been done to our Earth, this city seems like the perfect compromise of benefits to both humans and the environment. It’s such a rare, positive use of tech to help protect nature. In this urban metropolis, people get to live an exceptional quality of life, with reduced traffic, beautiful streets, 5G, and so much more, meanwhile doing their part to look after the planet. Let’s hope we see more creators thinking like this to save the one Earth we have.