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Construction Corner: Building a city of the future from the Internet up

Korky Koroluk
Construction Corner: Building a city of the future from the Internet up
Korky Koroluk

Smart cities is a concept we’re going to hear more of this year.

The idea is not new, but, until recently, it was nothing but a concept. Now, spurred by the rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous vehicles, the idea seems closer to becoming a reality.

In fact, we now have been told that Sidewalk Labs, a spinoff of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is scouting locations for a planned "city of the future."

There had been rumours for months. Then, early in December, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff gave us some details in a blog post.

He said since rumours of the project surfaced last spring, the company has been fielding inquiries from cities all over the world. He did not specify whether the project will be limited to the United States.

The city of the future, he wrote, would offer free high-speed Wi-Fi for all and would include automated trash systems, sustainable energy and self-driving cars.

A number of locations have been suggested as the site for this new city.

Denver, Detroit and Kansas City have all been mentioned as front-runners.

During the run-up to a decision, Sidewalk Labs will create several labs in urban areas, each with a specific focus, among them sustainable construction. The overall objective, Doctoroff wrote, is to showcase innovations and establish models for others to follow.

Cities are the engines of growth throughout the world, but most of them are always strapped for cash. In the meantime infrastructure is crumbling.

As a result, Doctoroff stated, "public confidence in government’s ability to relieve these problems and provide brighter opportunities has reached an all-time low.

"All these trends are fuelling the pessimism and the ugly, divisive politics that we’ve been experiencing."

Then he added that "America is not alone in this."

Doctoroff doesn’t downplay the difficulty of bringing new technologies to cities.

"When we established Sidewalk Labs, we did not delude ourselves into thinking that the answers to big urban problems would be obvious, or that the integration of digital technologies into the physical environment would be simple. Cities are big, complex and messy places. Urbanists and technologists speak almost completely different languages.

"Even in the simpler eras when the three previous technology revolutions unfolded, the process of bringing railroads into town, upgrading sewage systems, lighting up cities and accommodating cars took a generation or more. All of these hurdles help to explain why the venture capital community invests so little money in urban technology."

During the last year, Sidewalk Labs has been conducting a thought experiment: What would a city look like if you started from scratch in the Internet era and built a city "from the Internet up?"

That means, Doctoroff wrote, "a place where ubiquitous connectivity is truly built into the foundation of the city, and where people use the data that’s generated to enhance quality of life."

Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, has been writing about the "fourth industrial revolution" for a couple of years, meaning the Internet and information technology. But, to me, Doctoroff nailed it when he wrote that, when looking at history, "one can make the argument that the greatest periods of economic growth and productivity have occurred when we had integrated innovation into the physical environment, especially in cities.

"The steam engine, electricity grid, and automobile all fundamentally transformed urban life, but we haven’t really seen much change in our cities since before the Second World War."

This is a subject I’ll come back to from time to time. In the meantime, I’ll be watching the work of Sidewalk Labs.

It will take time for them to get their projects up and running, so don’t expect startling progress for a while yet.

In the meantime, its cities of the future will be the most important trend to watch this year.

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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