Aug 10, 2018

Sensing City

Numerous smart-city schemes have run into delays, dialed down their ambitious goals, or priced out everyone except the super-wealthy. A new project in Toronto, called Quayside, is hoping to change that pattern of failures by rethinking an urban neighborhood from the ground up and rebuilding it around the latest digital technologies.

Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs, based in New York City, is collaborating with the Canadian government on the high-tech project, slated for Toronto's industrial waterfront.

One of the project's goals is to base decisions about design, policy, and technology on information from an extensive network of sensors that gather data on everything from air quality to noise levels to people's activities.

The plan calls for all vehicles to be autonomous and shared. Robots will roam underground doing menial chores like delivering the mail. Sidewalk Labs says it will open access to the software and systems it's creating so other companies can build services on top of them, much as people build apps for mobile phones.

The company intends to closely monitor public infrastructure, and this has raised concerns about data governance and privacy. But Sidewalk Labs believes it can work with the community and the local government to alleviate those worries.

"What's distinctive about what we're trying to do in Quayside is that the project is not only extraordinarily ambitious but also has a certain amount of humility" says Rit Aggarwala, the executive in charge of Sidewalk Labs' urban-systems planning. That humility may help Quayside avoid the pitfalls that have plagued previous smart-city initiatives.

Other North American cities are already clamoring to be next on Sidewalk Labs' list, according to Waterfront Toronto, the public agency overseeing Quayside's development. "San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, and Boston have all called asking for introductions" says the agency's CEO, Will Fleissig.