Sector leaders tout smart cities as wise investment

Global initiatives deploy technology to improve quality of life in urban centres

An artist’s rendering of Sidewalk Labs’ proposed Quayside development in Toronto, which integrates technology throughout its designs | submitted

When nudged about the possibility of Sidewalk Labs striking up an initiative in Vancouver, the response from one representative of the Google sister company was rather coy.

Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet Inc. (Nasdaq:GOOGL) subsidiary specializing in using innovation to address urban issues ranging from transportation to energy consumption, is best known for its smart-city ambitions along Toronto’s waterfront.

Jesse Shapins, Sidewalk Labs’ director of urban design and digital innovation, offered only a sly shrug after being prompted at a Greater Vancouver Board of Trade panel in December about interest in the West Coast.

“We’re here because we’re in the process of looking around the world at other places where we might partner with local developers and local municipalities to explore opportunities,” he said.

But for Nancy MacDonald, vice-president of urban places at Stantec Inc. (NYSE:STN), the most important impact behind these smart-city initiatives is advancing quality of life.

“That can be true in improving mobility options, increasing energy and resource efficiency [and] building resilience into the systems,” MacDonald said.

The global smart-cities initiative sees government pushing communities to use electronic data collected from internet of things (IoT) sensors to more efficiently manage their services.

“It’s really about the importance of a city moving to that integrated approach, which was combining data analytics, artificial intelligence, IoT and all those other technologies. And this helps facilitate business opportunities, it increases efficiency in terms of the public sector, enhances safety and public health.”

MacDonald added that there’s a return on investment.

Stantec is leading the infrastructure design services for the proposed Sidewalk Labs Quayside development in Toronto – a project that offers the pedestrian-centric community an array of tech extras ranging from heated sidewalks that melt snow in the winter to optical sensors that monitor crosswalks to detect pedestrians crossing the street in the dark.

There are similar initiatives on the West Coast, but not on the scale of Toronto’s.

The City of Vancouver and the City of Surrey spent two years partnering on their joint bid for the federal government-backed Smart Cities Challenge, which offered a $50 million prize to the winning city.

The two cities worked on creating two collision-free, multi-modal corridors – one each within their respective borders – and were among five finalists.

The corridors would feature autonomous vehicles, IoT sensors and advanced data and analytics to create a zone that reduces transportation safety risks and greenhouse gas emissions and boosts transportation efficiency.

It attracted more than $36 million in investments from private enterprise, and the cities have together invested another $15 million.

However, Montreal was awarded the prize money last spring.

But a 2019 report from Stantec and ESI ThoughtLab (Econsult Solutions Inc.) found that cities that invest in smart-city initiatives realize a return on their investments.

Gains were highest for initiatives deploying technologies related to first-aid alerts, which realized a 5.6% return on investment, digital business licensing (5%), gunshot sensors (4.8%), dynamic electricity pricing (4.8%) and real-time crime mapping (4.7%).

“The investment in the thinking – especially from Vancouver and Surrey – [and] the broader approach of working together is probably going to be more valuable in the long term,” MacDonald said.