Future Cities: A focus on human-centred urbanism enabled by technology

I became involved in Sidewalk Labs in 2015 —before there was any idea of the project coming to Toronto. I participated in a think tank in New York that was made up of urbanists and technologists who came together to brainstorm and explore the potential of new technology to make city life better.

Technology use

Source: Sidewalk Labs

Human-centred urbanism

There was much excitement about the possibilities during these initial conversations, but it was also tempered by healthy skepticism from some around the table about a number of sensitive issues, including privacy concerns around data: who it belongs to and how it is used. While I shared the sense of positive anticipation, one of my concerns was and still is what these technologies do and don’t do for human interaction.

How can we use these advances in technology for positive benefit, without getting drawn into unintended and undesirable consequences? What is technology doing to how human beings relate to each other?

The uncritical embrace of the car after the Second World War is a great example of such unintended consequences of technology. People didn’t anticipate the extent to which car dependence would separate us spatially and socially. They also didn’t think of the implications of a sedentary lifestyle on our health. These lessons teach us that, going forward, we need to be more selective in the use of technology.  

The growing popularity of e-commerce is a more modern example. The technology to replace in-person retail shopping already exists. People can sit at home and order almost all the goods and services they need without leaving their living rooms. Essentially, this could eliminate all human interaction around the shared social experience of “main street.”

But, is the consumption of goods and services the only purpose of shops, cafés and restaurants, or is there another dimension having to do with being together in public spaces? In this instance, how do we take advantage of the convenience provided by seductive new technologies without isolating ourselves?  

Shops

Source: Sidewalk Labs

Innovative solutions

My colleagues and I are looking into introducing innovative solutions to some of the biggest challenges that cities are facing. Some examples include the following.

Waste management

We live in a world where we have large, cumbersome garbage trucks taking up the streets in our cities. Recycling is also taking up a lot of space, and it can be quite inefficient. Simply put, there is a lot of waste in the way we handle waste. According to the World Bank, waste generation in cities around the world is expected to rise to 2.2 billion tonnes per year by 2025.

Signapore recycling

Singapore waste management plant. Source: KEPPEL CORP.

Many cities are already using technology to better handle waste. Singapore is one example that other cities are seeking to emulate. The city sends only 2 percent of its solid waste to landfill. The rest is either burned to generate electricity or recycled.

Mobility

With more people living in the downtown core, cities need to explore more transportation options as adjuncts to existing public transit, as well as active transportation to make getting around more affordable, safe and convenient than relying on private motor vehicles. We will be exploring examples of self-driving fleets and buses, as well as innovative solutions for pedestrian and cyclists.

One of my favourite examples of innovation in transportation is taking place in Rotterdam. The city has installed sensor-operated traffic lights tracking volumes to make cycling safer and more convenient.

sensors

Sensor-operated traffic lights. Source: City of Rotterdam

Buildings

We can expand the capacity of flexible buildings to make adjustments over time to make housing, working and retail spaces more affordable and environmentally friendly. In these “radically” mixed-use spaces, people of all ages and backgrounds can have improved opportunities to live, work and play in close proximity. We can also take advantage of new technologies that allow us to make real-time adjustments in how we use energy.

housing

Source: Sidewalk Labs

Testing ideas

Project Sidewalk gestated over a number of years and, at one point, there was a need to think about a place where these ideas could be tested. This is when things really started to get interesting.

After a number of locations were considered, it became clear that the greatest benefits would come from being in a real city with a critical mass of people, activity and dynamism. Toronto particularly stood out for many reasons:

  • It’s a truly diverse city, where 140 languages are spoken, the majority of the population was born outside of Canada and, most importantly, talent from around the world is welcome.
  • The city’s population is growing at a rapid pace. It is the fourth-largest city in North America.
  • A portion of its waterfront is one of North America’s largest areas of underdeveloped land, which provides a remarkable opportunity to test new ideas and innovations.
Toronto Eastern Waterfront

Toronto Eastern Waterfront. Source: Sidewalk Labs

Getting involved

Every city — small, medium, large and extra large — has to now articulate its aspirations and proactively consider how inevitable technological advances are impacting our cities. These advances are forcing us to rethink, for example, how we do things like

  • organize municipal services,
  • engage the public in decision making and
  • implement new projects.

I encourage all Canadians to get involved in these conversations. Today, we all have an opportunity to imagine, discuss, debate and evaluate, with eyes wide open, how our future cities will look and how technologies can be used to bring communities closer together. This is why Sidewalk Toronto is spending $50 million on a year-long engagement process. We want to bring up and address these important questions.

Ideally, this is only the beginning. I hope to see the innovations that come out of the Sidewalk Toronto project applied to other cities around the world.

Our Urbanism Lab collaborated with Artengine and Impact Hub Ottawa on the Future Cities Forum, which took place on February 23, 2018. The keynote speakers shared their perspectives on what our future cities will look like, as new technologies take more and more space in our daily lives.

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