SF Technotes

Smart Cities and Urban Utopias

By Michael Castelluccio
July 12, 2022
0 comments

In their Helping CIOs Understand “Smart City” Initiatives, Forrester Research, Inc., introduces the global problem with a quote from former Denver, Colo., mayor Wellington E. Webb: “The 19th century was a century of empires.

 

Sidewalk Labs Toronto Quayside rendering. Image/Sidewalk Toronto.

 

The 20th century was a century of nation states. The 21st century will be a century of cities.” The shift is due to the massive migration to urban settings from rural areas. Forrester estimates that in 2008, for the first time, urban population caught up to rural population at a shared 50%. In 2019, urban populations started to grow rapidly, and as we approach 2050, rural populations will decrease by 2.8 billion. When the midcentury is reached, the researchers quote a 2008 United Nations World Urbanization study that predicts “the population living in urban areas is projected to gain 3.1 billion, passing from 3.3 billion in 2007 to 6.4 billion in 2050.”

 

The problems that accompany this rapid urbanization include scarcity of resources like housing, energy, water, and healthcare; inadequate and deteriorating infrastructure; and an increased demand for better economic opportunities. The need for these urban environments to become smarter is immediate. Governments, businesses, and communities are now learning how to buffer the changes from rapid urbanization with technologies.

 

IBM is credited with the popularization of the phrase “smart cities.” Big Blue’s definition of a smart city is “one that makes optimal use of all the interconnected information available today to better understand and control its operations and optimize the use of limited resources.”

 

Because a city is such a complicated economic, social, political, and ever-changing mass organism, there are a number of systems, public and private, that need to be connected in the effort to get smarter, and many technologies to decide among for solutions.

 

SMART OR UTOPIAN

 

There seem to be two very different approaches to creating or shaping a smart city. There is the kind of experiment where a piece of relatively undeveloped neighborhood is taken over and a project is built from the ground up as a virtual laboratory. The other approach involves moving into an established urban environment with the intention of finding tech solutions to the problems at all levels from street congestion to coordinating programs among all the schools.

 

One of the utopian projects that we reported on in October 2021 is the Woven City being built on the grounds of an abandoned factory complex at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan. (See “Toyota’s Emerald City.”) The managing force, Toyota, is making progress. A June 1, 2022, announcement titled Toyota and Woven Planet Have Developed a New Portable Hydrogen Cartridge Prototype describes a working prototype of its portable hydrogen cartridge to provide energy to power all kinds of applications inside and outside the home.

 

News from the other side of the planet reported the recent major failure of a futuristic experiment in Toronto, Canada. On May 07, 2020, Google’s parent company Alphabet walked away from its billion-dollar experiment in Toronto that was supposed to redesign a section of the city’s waterfront into a high-tech utopia, and now the discussion has turned to whether the Canadian city is ready to abandon entirely the plans for a high-tech Toronto 2.0. The project was begun in October 2017 by Alphabet’s Sidewalks Lab division along with Waterfront Toronto. Alphabet describes its Sidewalk Labs as an “urban innovation unit within Google.” It has four products to provide technology for more sustainable living places: Delve for better development planning with generative design; Mesa for building energy management and controls; Pebble for mobility solutions for parking lots and curbs; and Affordable Electrification for making the energy transition more affordable.

 

The reason for abandoning the project, called Quayside, was offered by Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff. He explained, “For the last two-and-a-half years, we have been passionate about making Quayside happen—indeed, we have invested time, people, and resources in Toronto, including opening a 30-person office on the waterfront. But as unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community.” Not everyone conceded that the project was likely abandoned due to COVID-19 and the economic fallout from the pandemic.

 

Quayside was supposed to be Sidewalk Labs first major “smart city” environment, “The most innovative place in the world that can set a new standard for urban life in the 21st century,” according to Doctoroff in a foreword to the developmental proposal. Included in the plans were heated footpaths that kept an eye on changing weather, fleets of self-driving vehicles, autonomous garbage collection, a digital building code system to enforce zoning regulations, and digital sensors for everything right down to park bench usage. According to Information Age, “Underpinning all 1,500 pages of Sidewalk’s proposal was the kind of immense data collection and analysis regime you would expect from Google.” This turned out to be an early and lasting problem as engineers proceeded apparently unaware of the toxicity of embedding sensors everywhere in a culture that values individual privacy.

 

Writing in MIT’s Technology Review, Karrie Jacobs sums up, “The project’s tech-first approach antagonized many; its seeming lack of seriousness about the privacy concerns of Torontonians was likely the main cause of its demise. There is far less tolerance in Canada than in the US for private-sector control of public streets and transportation, or for companies’ collecting data on the routine activities of people living their lives.”

 

John Lorinc, a Toronto-based journalist and senior editor of Spacing Magazine points to other problems with smart city governance that accompanied Sidewalk’s master development plan (MDIP). The “summary of management entities” part of the plan lists five new bodies “that will wield non-trivial governance, operating, and revenue-gathering authority in Quayside.” Sidewalk also pitched a “public administrator” with substantial authority in the district over advanced systems that comprise the hydro grid, a district heating operation, and other municipal tasks related to waste and stormwater management. “Taken together, these proposals reveal the company’s desire to push back the City of Toronto’s ability to plan, build, finance, and manage the proposed growth in [other] waterfront precincts.”

 

RESHAPING A CITY

 

The other approach to creating a “smart city” involves working with the existing resources and governance structures to improve what already exists. Forrester’s description of this kind of smart city involves a more cooperative effort, and “the use of Smart Computing technologies to make the critical infrastructure components and services of a city—which include city administration, education, healthcare, public safety, real estate, transportation, and utilities—more intelligent, interconnected, and efficient.” The tools for this smart computing include a new generation of “integrated hardware, software, network technologies that provide IT systems with real-time awareness of the real world, and advanced analytics to help people make more intelligent decisions about alternatives and actions that will optimize business balance sheet results.”

 

This kind of effort is happening around the world with serious efforts tailored to individual city cultures. The Economist ranks the top-performing digital cities in 2022 across four pillars: connectivity, services, culture, and sustainability. The ranking of the top 10 include:

 

  1. Copenhagen 81.5
  2. Amsterdam 74.6
  3. Beijing 73.7
  4. London 73.6
  5. Seoul 73.6
  6. New York 73.3
  7. Sydney 72.6
  8. Singapore 71.4
  9. Washington DC 71.4
  10. Paris 70.2

 

Toronto made the eleventh position, tied with Zurich at 70.1. The Economist’s white paper Digital Cities Index 2022 shows the ranking of 30 global cities.

 

As the world population continues to relocate in the 21st Century, city planners, executives, and technologists need to make the adjustments necessary to “set a new standard for urban life in the 21st century” by making their cities smarter.

 



Michael Castelluccio has been the technology editor for Strategic Finance for 26 years. His SF TechNotes blog is in its 23rd year. You can contact Mike at mcastelluccio@imanet.org.


0 No Comments