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Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet (the parent company of Google), is finalizing a detailed plan this year that will see it partnering with Canadian governments to create a mixed-use 100,000-person community in Toronto's revitalized Port Lands, with the intent to "disrupt urban infrastructures" through both new and tested solutions. Through extensive public consultations, it is in effect crowdsourcing smart city applications. Its claim of bringing urbanists and technologists together means overcoming the former's propensity to methodical process and the latter's ethos of "fail fast." The results may be game-changing, but should be viewed as best-of-breed point solutions and not a complete smart city framework. They should also be a call to action for vendors to create other labs or commit to this nascent partner ecosystem.

Sidewalk Labs is creating an incubator of smart city solutions and paradigms

Sidewalk Labs has started an ambitious project to convert 800 acres of Toronto's industrial Port Lands into a "neighborhood of the future" where people work and live, robots transport materials through underground tunnels, kiosks provide relevant information, and shared and autonomous vehicles are part of a personalized, multimodal, intelligent transportation system. Sidewalk is actively developing what it terms a digital layer, which has four components:

  • "Sense" – a distributed network of sensors to collect real-time data about the surrounding environment.

  • "Map" – which collects location-based information about the infrastructure, buildings, and shared resources.

  • "Account" – a personalized portal through which residents can access public and private services.

  • "Model" – which can simulate "what if" scenarios for city operations to inform long-term planning decisions.

Moreover, its standards layer defines the rules for residents, administrators, and developers using and building on the platform. It has clear data standards and well-supported APIs for the developer community to help improve the district by designing new city applications.

The district is viewed as a "platform for innovation," and dozens of public fora such as public talks, meetings, workshops, and civic labs are being held to contribute to its development plan on how it should be smart. This extensive public consultation may also result in effectively crowdsourcing ad hoc solutions. As key as citizen engagement is to smart city outcomes, this project is one of well-meaning outsiders looking in and determining fixes. These citizens are not involved with the issues of the nonexistent city, so can only guess at what its drivers and challenges will be. In short, the exercise risks the development of solutions to only theoretical issues.

However, building from the ground up means that there is an opportunity to get data ownership right. Sidewalk Labs, seeking to create a smart city gold standard in privacy, has a committee of privacy experts and a set of principles on data, security, and ownership. It is implementing Privacy by Design, an internationally and GDPR-recognized privacy framework that proactively embeds privacy and data integrity in the design and broader lifecycle stages of new IT systems, networked infrastructure, and business practices that involve the processing of personal data. Anonymizing data and only keeping data for as long as is necessary for an application is fundamental.

Sidewalk Labs has some bold goals, such the creation of the first climate-positive community at scale in the world. It plans to harness Toronto's waterfront for deep water cooling of buildings, microgrids, waste energy, and reduced transportation in order to become an exporter of clean energy. The aim is to create and support developers of applications that are flexible enough to be used in other parts of Toronto as well as exported globally, rather than creating labs elsewhere. What this also means is that other jurisdictions as well as other vendors should look at the results of Sidewalk Labs' Toronto initiatives not as a template for a smart city strategy, but as potentially pioneering reusable tools and methodologies, the result of which could be the creation of a suite of innovative smart city applications that are both monetizable and able to solve select urban challenges.

Vendors and operators may view this project as an incentive to create their own living labs of exportable applications. Some should also see joining a Sidewalk Labs partner ecosystem as a potential initiative for them in the smart cities space.


Further reading

2017 Trends to Watch: IoT Verticals, TE0019-000031 (February 2017)

"Successful Smart Cities Start with an Integrated Strategy," IOT001-000012 (March 2018)


Isabel Freire, Principal Analyst, IoT

[email protected]