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The Sidewalk Labs Initiative: Building the Smart City from the Ground Up

Toronto superimposed on an image of the city skyline

The Sidewalk Labs Initiative: Building the Smart City from the Ground Up

The Sidewalk Labs Initiative to Build a Smart City Infographic

There is a global race to build the smart city of the future and Alphabet (the parent company of Google) plans to be at the forefront. Through Google they have made the digital world searchable, now their long term goal is to do the same for the real world. To this end, they are putting in the time and energy to collate data via sensors and to feed these data to AI for machine learning purposes.

sidewalk labs smart city project toronto infographic

The ambitious goals of Toronto and their urban development is an example where the city’s needs coincide with Alphabet’s aspirations. Alphabet’s Urban Tech subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, is partnering with Toronto to develop first google-fied smart city from the ground up, an 800 acre area called Quayside. According to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “Sidewalk Toronto will transform Quayside into a thriving hub for innovation and a community for tens of thousands of people to live, work, and play.”

The Vision of Sidewalk Labs

The request for proposal was from Waterfront Toronto (the city agency tasked with overseeing the development), the provincial government of Ontario and the city of Toronto. Toronto, like other global cities, wants to invest in tech solutions to solve their problems on mobility, renewable resources, energy, livability and sustainability. The overall cost of building the smart city project is likely to run over $1 billion according to the Wall Street Journal.

As part of the winning bid, Sidewalk will invest $50 million during the one year planning phase for Quayside. Part of the roll-outs include a minimum of 3.3 million square feet of mixed-use space for residences, offices and commercial use. There are also ambitious plans for the new headquarters for Google Canada to transfer to Quayside. In an initial 220-page document from Sidewalk, the company reveals several important broadstrokes of the plan. Wrapped in innovative architecture, urban design and construction would be the use of autonomous vehicles, flexible modular housing units, and a mix of offices, residential and commercial spaces.

The innovations include underground waste disposal tunnels serviced by autonomous vehicles as well as private cars replaced by only autonomous vehicles. The streets would be pedestrian-friendly. Traffic management will be streamlined via integrated intelligent signals that communicating with one another to provide traffic flow information. From the ground up Quayside will be a smart city with a digital layer measuring movements of various kinds of traffic. Cameras will measure the satisfaction level regarding designs around the city. This measurement is crucial as it offers a “superior quality of life” and lays the foundation for the entire area to become searchable.

‘The bold idea here is we have an opportunity at this moment in time to apply technology and great urban design to fundamentally change for the better the way people live in smart cities. What we think is that cost of a fourth urban technology revolution, and we’re putting the world to help make it happen,” said Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, who added that the area “will be a living laboratory for innovation across urban design, technology related to mobility, infrastructure, buildings, public space, data-driven management and services. So, we think across every dimension of urban life there’s a huge opportunity to be bold, and to fundamentally bend the curve on quality of life.”

An Overview of Sidewalk Toronto

The development will be the largest smart city development in North America. It would also be one of the first with a ground-up philosophy. All smart city initiatives use new technology from big data gathered from traffic, air quality, power and mobility. Quayside or, alternatively, “Sidewalk Toronto” will also gather data about noise, air quality, weather, trash collection systems and the power grid. Add to the mix the use of CCTV cameras for various uses including intersection and traffic light control, and the project will also be the most comprehensive data gathering and analytics sub-system for any smart city initiative.

For Alphabet, the project presents a chance to experiment with new ways to use sensors, artificial intelligence, and data in an actual real world setting. “This is not some random activity from our perspective. This is the culmination of almost 10 years of thinking about how technology could improve people’s lives,” said Eric Schmidt, Alphabet’s executive chairman.

Dan Doctoroff, of Sidewalk labs, further explained “that they aim to demonstrate to the world and the people of Toronto that they can lower their cost of living, and give them more time back to their day. The ambitious project will be aiming for true climate positivity, while fundamentally reducing the risk of accidents on the streets and making the place generally safer for its residents.”

The Sidewalk user experience is Google Search, Maps, Waze, Google+, and more all rolled into one, but with a different container. Whereas Google uses its data to provide a user experience on the browser and in Android, the Sidewalk user experience will be felt in real life, with some help from smartphone apps. The use of data, and the issue on possible misuse and abuse, will be addressed by the public and government agencies. This is a new ground and the rules are not yet clear. On paper and with current modes, almost all kinds of data can be captured and converted or transformed into actionable information.

“We do imagine the city almost as a platform where you combine physical infrastructure, digital infrastructure, and its guidelines and rules, and enable others to build on top of it,” Doctoroff adds.

Alphabet, sidewalk labs, sidewalk toronto
Real-time information is already in the hands of users. This comes through information from CCTV cameras, weather reports, as well as the countless smartphones in use at any given time. The information is collated, massaged and sent back to the user on their smartphones in various forms. This is basically the same data which will be captured and sent to users via connectivity channels for Quayside.

Driving Growth Through Sensor Technology

At the core of Sidewalk labs strategy is the use of Sensor technology for driving the growth of the project. It’s seen as being able to improve daily living in five target areas, namely:

  1. Breathing Clean Air – scientists will use data collected by satellites to create detailed, timely visualizations of air pollution in major cities.
  2. Real-Time Protection – motion detector alarms are triggered when an unauthorized entry is made inside a home or establishment.
  3. Withstand Wintry Weather – satellite instruments are able to detect the amount and movement of moisture in the air and accurately predict snowfall.
  4. Drive Safer – traffic lights will be able to adjust to real-time traffic conditions. Road sensors will make changes to the speed limit based on weather and accidents.
  5. Save Energy – automatic lighting based on human presence. High-energy consumption appliances will adjust based on dynamic price signals to lower the electricity bill. These gadgets will also sense when no one is at home and will automatically turn appliances off to reduce cost.

Some of the most basic information is already available on the smartphone. This includes the weather outdoors, as well as weather in neighboring areas. It only takes a few jumps through programming loops to pair the information together and create a credible weather forecast for the an area. Currently, the information available are “bring your umbrella” and “open your umbrella in five minutes.”

Parking lot information systems allow the user to see which parking lot has available spaces. With internal mapping and CCTV info, the user can also have the exact parking spot sent to his navigation app or a parking lot app. This is almost the same algorithm which can be used to help people without restaurant reservations. A client can take a look at the information from different restaurants and see which one has an open table, or which place is not too crowded. The same app can also show where the nearest parking lot is located.

Imagine being able to ask your smart phone if the local bar is full, whether there is room to kick a soccer ball in a park, the fastest way to get your child to school, the safest way to navigate the smart city or searching for parking spaces before you leave your home. The potential impacts of this project are boundless and likely go well beyond what Google is able to do in the digital world.

Quayside promises to be a big source of data, and this data will be massaged and mined as heavily as any other information source. The machine learning techniques and AI required for the project to succeed is massive. Digitizing various sources of information will take a while, but for the development to succeed, it is important that all relevant information is used, including CCTV cameras, and microphones. Privacy concerns will be addressed by the authorities and stakeholders as these are raised.

Quayside looks like a big win for Sidewalk where it can be used as a “living urban laboratory” for new ideas in urban development, mobility solutions and automation. It could very well be the first of many robust and bustling smart cities all over the world. Ultimately, it will be the first neighborhood built from the Internet up. Bold business will continue to keep a an eye on this groundbreaking project and will report on its bold developments.

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