Smart cities represent modern engineering’s capacity to create and maintain efficient, convenient, and sustainable urban environments.

There’s been a lot of buzz around smart city developments lately, especially as Sidewalk Labs recently released its long overdue Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) for Toronto’s East Waterfront. The 1,500-page document aims to “unlock the potential” of the Quayside area. In an interview, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff told the media that the “proposal aims to do something extraordinary on Toronto’s eastern waterfront—create a new model of inclusive growth, where cutting-edge technology and forward-thinking urban design combine to achieve an ambitious improvement in every aspect of the way we live.”

The company says it will be focusing on enabling the city for inclusive growth and raising the standards of living for its inhabitants. The proposed plan includes thermal energy grids, factory-based construction which will focus on timber buildings, and a mobility network with heated bike lanes and adaptive traffic signals.

Digital Urban Transformation

The ambitious proposal plans to integrate emerging technologies like the Internet of Things and connected smart lights in the very fabric of city life. Sidewalk Labs has committed to invest over $1.3 billion to leverage $38 billion in additional private capital. The company highlights that the proposed blueprint will generate 44,000 jobs and $4.3 billion in annual tax revenues. It also plans to build 2,500 housing units to be sold below the market value.

But not everyone is happy with the plans. As early as October last year, Saadia Muzaffar resigned from the project’s advisory panel citing the project’s lack of transparency regarding the private consortium Toronto Waterfront set to implement the project. Apple even set up their iconic privacy posters in Toronto in an attempt to openly troll the project.

In June, former privacy commissioner of Ontario Ann Cavoukian also resigned. As Google would be essentially spearheading the project, critics have voiced their concerns over the web giant’s history when it comes to data harvesting and other information governance issues.

Uncontrolled information governance can lead to data breaches as well as identity theft. A report by Special Counsel reveals that there were at least 1,579 instances of data breaches in 2017 alone – a 44.7% jump from the previous year. Without proper regulatory oversight in smart city data governance, this number has to the potential to explode in a few years’ time according to experts. Some critics like U.S. venture capitalist Roger McNamee even called the Sidewalk Labs project “surveillance capitalism”. In a statement, Sidewalk Labs challenged the critics in an open debate to disprove the allegations towards the project and Google.

Smarter cities

Criticism aside, Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP will become the new standard in comprehensive planning as well as a partnership model for urban development in the 21st century.

The largest smart city project in Australia is Switching on Darwin, and has just been completed. The project in Darwin is comprised of 900 “smart” LED lights, 24 environmental sensors, parking sensors, free Wi-Fi, and a network that includes 138 new CCTV cameras throughout the country’s capital city. In a move to stifle critics, the Lord Mayor of Darwin Kon Vatskalis said in an interview that, “there’s no facial recognition, we don’t have Chinese equipment, our cameras can’t tell who you are and what you do.”

The local council said data would be used to help government, businesses, and residents learn more about the city in order to make better decisions. The city officials received flak last year as they completed multiple trips to China, including the Lord Mayor’s attendance at a Huawei forum in Shenzen.

In India, the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) implementation of their bold Smart Cities Mission has yet to be completed. In fact, only the first 20 of the 100 citizen-friendly and self-sustainable urban settlements that are planned will be ready by 2021. The Mission plans to integrate digital technologies to interlink and facilitate growth in said cities. The NDA has already begun construction in 29 cities while the proposals for 21 others have been received.

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