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Sidewalk Labs Wants to Make Cities More Sustainable, One Building at a Time

In May, a group of technology startups competed for a $5,000 prize in the third annual PropTech Challenge, supported by The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) in partnership with the Real Estate Board of New York (REBNY). This year’s competition focused on helping owners and managers get tenants back into buildings safely and securely. The winning concept was Mesa, a toolkit of plug-and-play sensors that can track a building’s energy use. Mesa wasn’t developed by a plucky startup, as one might suspect. Rather, it is one of the products being offered by Sidewalk Labs, an urban innovation company backed by Alphabet, the parent company of Google. “This was a solution we hoped we’d see in the market, but never did,” says Head of Mesa, Rachel Steinberg. 

Most of you will remember Sidewalk Labs from their futuristic development proposal outside of Toronto. Despite all of the innovation that had been planned for this district built “from the internet up,” Sidewalk Labs announced they would no longer pursue their renowned vision in 2020, citing unprecedented economic uncertainty. Nevertheless, the intricate plans had introduced inspiring and eye-opening concepts. The 12-acre development on the Quayside waterfront was presented as “the most innovative district in the entire world.” It was positioned as the largest climate-positive development in North America, with streets made of dynamic modular paving systems, mass-timber constructed towers, and pneumatic trash collectors.

Quayside is just another in a long line of attempts at building utopia. As far back as the end of the 19th century, for example, social activist Ebenezer Howard envisioned the unrealized but revered “Garden City” that would be surrounded by greenery and publicly owned. In the 1920s and 1930s, Le Corbusier’s “Radiant City” and Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Broadacre City” put forth plans that would implement the latest technologies of transit and communication into an urban network. In the twenty-first century, these ambitious proposals come in the form of the “Smart City,” a comprehensive plan to utilize data and the internet to make cities safer, cleaner, and more sustainable. 

Just like those of Howard, Le Corbusier, or Wright, these larger-than-life manifestos produce a wealth of innovative ideas and technologies, but more often than not, their inherent breadth and complexity confines them to the pages of history books, hampering experimentation and progress on a municipal scale. In December of last year, for example, Cisco pulled the plug on its $1 billion smart cities software, Kinetic for Cities. “Smart cities are a hard sell,” former Cisco director Christopher Reberger told Wall Street Journal. “Rather than starting with a fully connected city as the market anticipated, cities are investing in solutions for specific use cases that solve a particular problem.” 

Even though the project in Toronto never broke ground, Sidewalk Labs has a renewed focus on a form of change to the urban world that might be even more scalable than development: PropTech. They are creating an internet-of-things network that will organically link together to enhance sustainability and quality of life that, when all is said and done, will be at a much broader scale than Sidewalk Toronto or any single city for that matter. 

The trend away from top-down megaprojects in favor of smaller but wide-reaching technology is changing not only the way we think about smart cities, but smart buildings as well. While PropTech investment was initially focused on products that digitized formerly analog behaviors, “more recently, PropTech investors have been pouring money into companies that promise to make buildings healthier, cleaner and more efficient.” One of the most important ways to achieve all three of those goals is to connect buildings together. In other words: smart cities are created with a collection of smart buildings.

The PropTech Challenge was created to demonstrate the capabilities of new technology and spur conversations about energy management between building owners and tenants, a conversation that needs to happen if New York is to hit its climate goals. NYSERDA also recently launched funding to support bringing energy management to commercial buildings. Patrick O’Shei, NYSERDA Director of Market Development said, “The Sidewalk Labs Mesa team stood out for their prediction accuracy, thoughtful approach to modeling a real-world building, and novel plug-and-play approach to building energy optimization. We look forward to seeing the Mesa team leverage its tenant energy management solutions to help New York accomplish its nation-leading climate and clean energy goals.”

Sidewalk Labs is leading the charge of making our buildings smarter. The Mesa team just announced a portfolio-wide partnership with real estate developer Hines, and they are in early discussions for expansion with cities in Europe, Australia, and India. According to Steinberg, they have their sights set on scaling quickly and adding more capabilities like addressing air quality. “We’re committed to improving the quality of life in cities,” a Sidewalk Labs spokesperson said. “We’d love to see all of the products integrated into as many places as possible, but each one can make an impact on its own.” Besides Mesa, Sidewalk Labs has also created Delve, a software that allows real estate developers to analyze density, daylight, and infrastructure before putting a shovel in the ground. And Pebble, a low-cost, privacy-preserving vehicle sensor that provides parking operators with real-time data to help manage parking space (and hopefully, decrease it). Sidewalk Labs has also generated its own incubation and investment platform for PropTech innovations, such as Replica, Cityblock, and COORD, focused on tackling cities’ greatest challenges. 

While urban idealists like me will always be a bit saddened that Sidewalk Lab’s Quayside project in Toronto never came to fruition, despite its plans for retractable sidewalk covers and modular paving tiles, the company may have a more global impact through micro-interventions. Futuristic master plans are eye-catching but often only improve the lives of the small fraction of the people that are lucky enough to live in them. With their growing range of highly implementable products, Sidewalk Labs may have us living in more sustainable cities much sooner than we thought. 

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