In 2011, former Barcelona mayor Xavier Trias took office after running on a platform of turning the recession-ravaged Spanish municipality into a city of the future.
The team he formed, Smart City Barcelona, initiated 83 projects in 12 areas it thought could be improved through technology including transportation, water, energy, waste and open government. The city invited companies to use it as a living laboratory for their products and services that had the potential to improve urban life.
It didn’t take too long for Barcelona to come to the conclusion that technology is not the way to solve its most intractable problems, said Francesca Bria, the city’s chief technology officer who has now been tasked with giving Barcelona’s smart cities strategy a complete overhaul.
“You think, ‘I’m just going to put out some sensors, gather some data and let the technology companies solve the problem.’ This is always failing,” Bria said. “Most of these problems don’t get resolved with a technological fix. They get resolved with a systemic approach.”
But that hasn’t stopped other cities from embarking on similar experiments. Across the Atlantic, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., is working with Waterfront Toronto — a federal, provincial and municipal government partnership with stewardship over the city’s lakeshore — on a plan to rebuild an underdeveloped east end area called Quayside.
Most of these problems do not get resolved with a technological fix. They get resolved with a systemic approach
Sidewalk’s ideas, such as a network of underground garbage disposal robots and a climate-friendly thermal grid powered by waste heat, sound cutting edge. But tech companies have been pitching similar utopian visions for almost a decade, and experts say Toronto may be about to repeat many of the same mistakes other cities have made in letting those companies conduct experiments.
“It’s been a good half-decade now that major, multinational technology vendors have been out peddling this stuff,” said London-based urbanist Adam Greenfield, author of Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. “(There’s) absolutely no evidence that there’s either a viable business model or any concrete benefit to citizens.”
Sidewalk’s vision for this particular experiment is certainly ambitious. In its response to Waterfront Toronto’s request for proposals to develop Quayside, Sidewalk paints a picture of a neighbourhood where streets are closed to all but autonomous vehicles, buildings are constructed from modular units that allow them to quickly change uses, and sensors collect data to optimize everything from traffic to waste collection.
To make this a reality, Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto are proposing to work together as co-master developers. Sidewalk’s vision document is very specific about the neighbourhood it would like to build, but its plan for achieving, financing and profiting from that vision is unclear.
Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto have yet to announce who will own the data generated by the sensors, who will pay for installing and maintaining the technological infrastructure and who will retain the rights to intellectual property created as part of the project.
Sidewalk chief executive Dan Doctoroff has also said the company does not have a clear plan for how it intends to generate revenue, with Google giving the subsidiary free reign to experiment on the assumption that a revenue model will become clear if it can improve the quality of life in the area.
But Doctoroff said it’s not fair to characterize Sidewalk’s plan as vague or poorly thought out. He said the company has conducted extensive research and is confident it can make everything in the vision document a reality, including those ideas involving technology that doesn’t currently exist.
“The notion that we have no ideas, we’re just going to figure it out, we’ll do it through that process of co-creation, is probably not an accurate description of the effort we have put in,” he said. “Everything that’s in (the vision document), we believe is possible.”
Doctoroff said Google has not given him a deadline for finding a way to make money from the project. But if Sidewalk can come up with a viable business model, the revenue potential is huge.
Everything that is in (the vision document), we believe is possible
Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk Labs CEO
For one thing, the percentage of the human population living in cities is projected to significantly grow over the coming decades, making the hunt for solutions to gridlock, unaffordable housing and aging infrastructure even more pressing than it is now.
The United Nations has estimated the world’s cities will expand by an additional 2.5 billion people by 2050. But the payoff for implementing technological solutions to urban problems will be much sooner, generating US$774.8 billion in revenue by 2021, according to a report last July by Research and Markets.
That payoff is why companies such as International Business Machines Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. have been vying for leadership in the smart cities market for years. But successful case studies are restricted to relatively minor matters — for example, improved street lighting — that don’t make a meaningful dent on residents’ overall quality of life.
Kendra Smith, co-author of Big Data and Smart Cities, an American Planning Association report, said there’s a simple reason why there aren’t any unambiguously successful smart cities despite almost a decade of experiments: Cities are tough.
“Cities are complex and cities are unique in and of themselves. They’re designed really, really weird. They just are,” she said. “Things that made sense for cities in the height of the industrial revolution just don’t make sense today.”
Doctoroff said Sidewalk’s plan for Toronto’s Quayside can’t be compared to Barcelona or technology initiatives in other cities because the company plans to rebuild the area from the ground up. Currently, Quayside and the surrounding eastern waterfront are uninhabited and drab, with little commercial activity beyond parking lots and a few rental cruise boats.
“When you’re in an existing city, it’s a very different problem, obviously,” he said. “I think to some extent it’s comparing apples and oranges.”
But experiments involving cities built from scratch have also produced mixed results. For example, South Korea’s Songdo, which is scheduled for completion in 2020, has fallen short of its goals to attract residents.
Craig Walter, who leads Deloitte’s infrastructure practice in Canada, said previous smart city experiments may have simply been ahead of their time. Today, advances in cloud computing and other technologies have brought Sidewalk’s utopian-sounding vision into the realm of possibility.
“Many of the enabling technologies are at a level of maturity where we’re starting to see a lot more of this happen in practice,” he said. “Things that might have been, for lack of a better term, aspirational or futuristic just a couple of years ago are now starting to look quite realistic.”
In any case, Will Fleissig, chief executive of Waterfront Toronto, said we already know the conventional way of doing things doesn’t work when it comes to solving difficult problems such as affordable housing.
“It’s about creating a place that is how we should be living in Toronto in the 21st century that happens to have technology embedded in it,” he said. “We didn’t start with the technology.”
Those Torontonians who have heard of the project seem to share Fleissig’s optimism. A poll conducted for the Financial Post by Forum Research found that less than one-third of residents could confidently describe Sidewalk Toronto’s vision, but half of those said the concept would benefit the city and Google equally.
There are also many critics, however, and many of them have focused on the privacy issues inherent in the data-gathering technology Sidewalk plans to embed in the neighbourhood. The company has brought former Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Anne Cavoukian on as a consultant and Doctoroff said Sidewalk will not use data collected by sensors to target people with online advertisements.
Nevertheless, Renée Sieber, a geography professor at McGill University in Montreal who uses and studies open data, said she’s concerned that the focus on privacy will give Sidewalk an excuse to be less than transparent about the data it collects.
“The concern about privacy has sort of sucked up all the oxygen in this question about openness. That can be used quite cynically as a way to cordon data,” Sieber said. “It can also be used quite cynically so one doesn’t have to talk about the other issues in the smart city.”
Bria, Barcelona’s CTO, said she would advise Waterfront Toronto to retain ownership of any data collected, as well as any other technological infrastructure necessary to make Sidewalk’s idea a reality. Otherwise, the city risks being locked into a dysfunctional system, with costs spiralling out of control and other companies unable to use the technology.
“The risk is that you enter into some kind of leasing agreement that is really long term, the city doesn’t have the budget any more and then what?” Bria said. “The street doesn’t get paved, the lighting doesn’t work or you have social exclusion, because some areas of the city don’t get covered because the company’s not paying any more.”
That’s certainly not the vision presented by Sidewalk and its drawings that depict diverse residents happily cycling, kayaking and mingling in sunny green parks.
That would certainly be pleasantly different from the current reality of Quayside, where practically any change would be an improvement. The question Torontonians will have to ask is whether the cost will justify whatever Sidewalk achieves.