Smart Cities

From the Sidewalk of the City to the Sidewalk of the Building

The pandemic has been incredibly disruptive to the real estate sector, and perhaps the biggest cancellation of the COVID-19 era so far is Google’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto. The Quayside redevelopment project was still in planning phases and held back by a resolute citizen movement that focused on issues of data privacy and corporate control of typically government services. Despite impressive designs and bold PR campaigns by Google, local resistance may have been enough to stop the project, however, in the end it was the COVID-19 outbreak and economic downturn that put the final nail in the coffin for the smart city start-up’s first major venture. “As unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan,” Sidewalk Labs chief executive Dan Doctoroff said as part of an official statement. […]

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The pandemic has been incredibly disruptive to the real estate sector, and perhaps the biggest cancellation of the COVID-19 era so far is Google’s Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto. The Quayside redevelopment project was still in planning phases and held back by a resolute citizen movement that focused on issues of data privacy and corporate control of typically government services. Despite impressive designs and bold PR campaigns by Google, local resistance may have been enough to stop the project, however, in the end it was the COVID-19 outbreak and economic downturn that put the final nail in the coffin for the smart city start-up’s first major venture.

“As unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan,” Sidewalk Labs chief executive Dan Doctoroff said as part of an official statement. Others, however, highlight the unquestionable influence of the citizen-led resistance on the final decision and the huge implications of that for future smart city projects around the world.

“This is a major victory for the responsible citizens who fought to protect Canada’s democracy, civil and digital rights, as well as the economic development opportunity. Sidewalk Toronto will go down in history as one of the more disturbing planned experiments in surveillance capitalism,” commented former BlackBerry chief executive Jim Balsillie.

Whatever the biggest reason for the demise of the Toronto Quayside project, it may be a while until we see Sidewalk Labs launch a similar neighborhood scale project. Instead, Google’s sister company has reemerged in the smart buildings market and is making quite a splash. Their plug-and-play energy-saving system for office spaces, Mesa, recently won the third annual PropTech Challenge, supported by The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the Real Estate Board of New York. The product includes a toolkit of plug-and-play sensors that can track a building’s energy use to cut energy costs, improve tenant comfort, and simplify building operations.

“This was a solution we hoped we’d see in the market, but never did.”

Rachel Steinberg, Head of Mesa at Sidewalk Labs

Buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of total carbon emissions but the vast majority of buildings do not have access to the typically complex and expensive custom smart building technologies. True plug-and-play functionality for energy optimization could be a game-changer for the reduction of energy use across all building stock. Mesa promises compatibility with any space that uses a thermostat to directly control heating or cooling, and it connects via traditional Wi-Fi networks, so there’s no complex wiring or system integrations. The company claims that “busy owners or tenants can basically just plug, peel, stick — and start saving energy.”

On the tenant side, their app allows occupants to report their comfort levels and see their own impact on the office’s carbon footprint. The system also embraces current workplace trends with real-time occupancy sensing to find efficiencies from flexible working and a range of post-COVID return-to-work features including air quality monitoring and remote systems management.

Partnerships are being developed, such as the collaboration with Norway-based creator of small, commercial-grade, wireless sensors cloud connectors, Disruptive Technologies, to help collect a range of building data. Mesa's software then optimizes energy use based on several data streams, including temperature, humidity, occupancy, and weather. It also utilizes user feedback on thermal comfort and environmental impact to account for individual occupant preferences. “The Mesa team stood out for their prediction accuracy, thoughtful approach to modeling a real-world building,” said NYSERDA’s Director of Marketing, Patrick O’Shei, when judging the PropTech Challenge winners.

After a disappointing end to their quayside project, the world’s best funded smart cities company appears to have become the world’s best funded smart buildings company. However, their simple, affordable approach to buildings gives them the potential for city scale adoption of their individual building platform. Whether the building-by-building approach is just another route to their broader urban goals or whether this new direction based on the lessons learned in Toronto, the idea of a truly accessible plug-and-play energy management system is a game-changer for the evolution of buildings and their impact on the environment. Introduce the plug-and-play model to more building applications and we may be on the way to a complete plug-and-play smart building.

“Mesa is the first of several products Sidewalk plans to launch over the coming months — all with a particular focus on improving sustainability and affordability. These innovations reflect our commitment to combine forward-thinking urban design with cutting-edge technology to help solve common growth challenges facing cities around the world,” write Sidewalk Labs’ Rachel Steinberg and Jenny Chen. “These products build on insights from our years of comprehensive planning work, including most recently in Toronto, and they’ll continue to inform our work with large-scale urban developments.”

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