The proliferation of fast growing, high density cities has created major challenges around energy and water infrastructure, traffic congestion, air quality, and the efficient management of resources for large numbers of people. Google’s Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of parent company Alphabet Inc., is attempting to solve these complex urban problems through a public-private partnership with Waterfront Toronto. Sidewalk Labs will invest an initial $50 million to deploy automated vehicles (AVs), smart buildings, intelligent traffic signals, and a myriad of other digital technology solutions for Quayside, a neighborhood on Toronto’s waterfront. This is the first project of its kind for Alphabet, and it aims to create a smart city blueprint for 21st century urban neighborhoods. While the first phase of the project will be deployed in Quayside, Sidewalk Labs intends to expand the pilot across Toronto’s entire Eastern Waterfront district—transforming the city into a global hub for urban innovation.
Connectivity and Mobility Key Focus Areas
Sidewalk Labs has released a 200-page document on its vision for smart city development in Toronto. Although the plans are yet to be finalized, the company is aiming to build the neighborhood “from the internet up”—making ubiquitous connectivity a significant hallmark of the project. As seen in other smart cities under development, such as in San Diego, a number of communication networks will be needed to execute on ambitious smart city visions. In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs will be deploying high speed wired communications over fiber and copper, high bandwidth wireless over Wi-Fi and cellular, and long-range low bandwidth connectivity using low power wide-area networks (LPWANs). The wide range of communication networks will enable an array of applications to be deployed, ranging from low power technologies such as air quality sensors all the way to high capacity networks for AVs.
The creation of a high tech and flexible mobility system is expected to be another major area of focus for the project. Sidewalk Labs plans on restricting all non-emergency conventional vehicles from a large portion of the neighborhood while providing robust walking and bicycling infrastructure, an expansion of streetcar lines, and self-driving transit shuttles. Additionally, smart parking systems, an adaptive traffic light pilot (which prioritizes pedestrians and cyclists), and a mobility as a service platform (which will help residents assess all mobility options) are expected to be deployed. Commercial freight will also be transformed into a tech-driven urban system by using robots to make deliveries. Together, these initiatives should make Quayside one of the most technologically advanced mobility (and least car-dependent) neighborhoods in North America.
Local Project, Global Implications?
The vision for the ambitious smart city project in Toronto goes far beyond the city itself. Sidewalk Labs is hoping the results and lessons learned in Toronto will be replicable for the thousands of other global cities struggling with similar urbanization and sustainability challenges. Finding the right business models, stimulating interdepartmental coordination within government, and quelling citizen concerns about privacy and security are all barriers that Sidewalk Labs must overcome if this project is to be successfully scaled and exported to other cities. Both leading and aspiring smart cities should keep a close eye on the developments on Toronto’s waterfront. It is one of the most ambitious projects to date in terms of testing integrated systems and innovations and could serve as a blueprint for optimal efficiency, sustainability, and improved quality of life for 21st century cities.