Redefining Urban Life: Google Wants To Accelerate Urban Innovation

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

Google is known for its innovative technological developments, big data projects and start-up investment, but perhaps not the internet giant's recent venture; empowering smarter cities.

SideWalk Labs is a recent Google start-up focused on developing a platform to help assist and accelerate innovation in cities. Urban environments are coming under increasing pressure with 55% of the world's population residing in urban areas in 2018. Compare this to the figure in 1950 being at 35%, whilst keeping in mind the global population has increased by 3 billion people since then. The UN forecasts over 65% of the global population will be dwelling in urban environments by 2050. This demonstrates a growing need to rethink outdated ideas and designs for urban life.

"We're building a platform and a set of urban applications to accelerate innovation in cities around the world." - SideWalk Labs

SideWalk Labs illustrated vision for a more sustainable urban environment.

SideWalk Labs are creating a project to serve as a beacon for cities around the World based in Toronto, Canada. The hope for the start-up is combine people centred urban design with the latest technology to achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility and economic opportunity. Technologies like self-driving, autonomous electric vehicles, digital navigation tools, and live data inform decisions to cope with peak traffic and surges in utility demands alongside renewed design for a new standard of sustainability to reduce energy consumption, waste and emissions.

Smarter and more sustainable cities are not a new idea. Global cities like New York, London, Singapore, Tokyo, Mexico City and many more have all tried to implement or alter urban processes to increase levels of sustainability. In 2017 an Intel sponsored global smart city performance index ranked Singapore top; surpassing both London and New York. Interestingly the research group behind the study, Juniper, found that smarter cities have the potential to save individuals around 125 hours every year. That does not sound impressive given the levels of investment needed, but when scaled up that small figure becomes a lifestyle transformation. Time is one of the most undervalued but most stressed commodities of our generation. If you were to offer any individual 3 weeks worth of time, every year, it could be life changing for them. The report outlines where this time will come from; 60 hours saved through smart traffic systems responding dynamically to changes in traffic levels. 35 hours through public safety and machine learning enabled software allowing for driver re-routing. 9 hours through healthcare preventative apps and telehealth aimed at reducing average doctor visits by promoting better overall well being and an estimated 21 hours saved through productivity changes, through automation and simplification of administrative processes when citizens interact with city agencies.

This time bonus can have numerous benefits for inhabitants, giving more time to spend with family and friends, exercise, vacations, improved recovery, decreased risk of depression through reduced stress and improved earnings potential.

Hong Kong has one of the most densely populated places in the world with nearly 7,000 people per km².

"A Smart City is an urban ecosystem that places emphasis on the use of digital technology, shared knowledge and cohesive processes to underpin citizen benefits in vectors such as mobility, public safety, health and productivity."

Why the need for smarter cities?

The 20th and 21st century have presented us with the emergence of 'Megacities' and overcrowding. Today there are nearly 30 cities with over 10 million urban inhabitants excluding the wider metropolitan and commuter belt areas. Cities like Tokyo (36,923,000), São Paulo (36,842,102), Jakarta (30,075,310) all of which have unique infrastructures, supply chains, services under differing volumes of pressure. This presents a challenging issue, since not every solution or smart application is applicable to every city, each of which has its own unique requirements, demands and constraints. By standing idle, cities risk collapsing productivity, well-being, happiness and economic growth amongst other things. Therefore there is a present need for cities to evolve away from the historic scaling methodology currently in place, which is largely centuries out of date. Urbanisation is a fact of modern life with the UN forecasting nearly two thirds of us living in urbanised areas, cities must rethink their solutions to this demand.

But what makes a city smart?

Imagine living in a city that knew your weekly schedule, what time you head out to work, when you go for your lunch break, when you collect your weekly groceries, or how much rubbish you put out. Now consider a system that can interpret your 'data' and respond in real-time. Imagine a city that is responsive to its inhabitants hourly demands. This may seem far-fetched but the technology is there to be implemented, it is just a question of scaling it up and sourcing investment. Cities can learn how their inhabitants move around and progress to understanding their utility demands hour by hour. This would allow for dynamic responses. Consider this; a responsive transport system built not on pre-defined routes, but an evolving network. A network of buses and mini-cabs that evolves to the needs and real-time demand of the cities inhabitants whilst avoiding things such as construction, disruption or new developments that can often inhibit pre-defined bus routes, thus helping utilise both vehicle and passenger demands more efficiently. Instead of city planners and councils making decisions based out of date information, they could make informed choices based on real-time data, ensuring citizens are at the centre of these decisions. The good news is such applications already exist, they just haven't scaled up yet.

Smarter cities are not just about collecting and analysing increasing amounts of data, which is often very expensive both to implement, analyse and maintain. Take Curitiba for example, for centuries the city was little more than an outpost for travellers moving between São Paulo and the surrounding agricultural regions. It was Brazil's 'sleeping city'. Then a wave of European immigration swept parts of Brazil and the city's farmland was a key attraction. The city became increasing segregated into immigrant communities each with their own localised industries, culture and lifestyles. Over time the levels of growth Curitiba was experiencing were impossible to contain - over a 20 year period the city's population doubled from 140,000 to 360,000. Curitiba's planners could do little to regulate the levels of growth leading to frequent, unorganised development to suit the current levels of demand. Apparent change came along in the form of new mayor Ivo Arzua, who solicited a new 'masterplan' to guide the city to sustainable growth. But despite the renewed hope, nothing happened. It resulted in good-looking coloured paper with a few potential case studies, but no real change.

Then Jamie Lerner was appointed mayor, on the promise of change without bankrupting the city. It required ambitious planning and a view that anything was possible. So much so, he wanted to pedestrianise the central mall which at the time was an automobile thoroughfare, in 48 hours. This was the beginning of proving that it is possible to have a livable city without exorbitant expense. Other major components implemented under Lerner were; A series of connective corridors to help revolutionise city transportation; concentric circles of local bus lines connected radial lines that went outward from the city centre, designed to help encourage density along the corridors; The placement of Anchors: large parks, patches and social areas were created through land reclamation and water recuperation of degraded land to solve both environmental and social problems, combined with green zoning to safeguard open spaces.

The video below documents the dramatic changes Curitiba went through. It is well worth a watch if you have the time.

The vision Lerner put forward was based on being 'people-centric whilst planning on a budget'. Curitiba is now a symbolic example of sustainable living, and proof it can be achieved without eye-watering levels of investment. However, Lerner implemented change against significant resistance, something that in many developed cities would never be allowed by law. Additionally, Lerner's time in office was well-timed, since many experts thought if such changes were implemented years later, the levels of growth would not make it viable.

If cities are to evolve to be fit for purpose for the future by putting the needs of their citizens first, they will need to carefully consider those needs and demands and adjust their planning focus into the mid to long term. It is not a case of applying a proven methodology from one city to another, each city wants to preserve their unique culture, has their own requirements, infrastructure restraints, available funding and differing levels of bureaucracy that must be taken into consideration by planners. Instead it is about planners moving away from their city's needs of today and planning for the needs of tomorrow. Smart cities are not just about adding green space, or to improve the aesthetics and feel of urban life, nor to just look good on paper for political advancement. They should redefine urban life as we know it.

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