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When Building Smart Cities, Don’t Forget the Neighborhood

Ancient Rome was, at its peak, the greatest power in the world. Roman engineering and architectural achievements survive to this day in the form of aqueducts, roads, and buildings. Roman social institutions have survived for the long haul. And of course, the Roman military was a beacon of professionalism not seen again for hundreds of years. While Rome’s military was successful for numerous reasons, one factor, in particular, was the army’s focus on building group strength through individual contributions. The great Roman legions were powered by thousands of well-trained, well-equipped individual legionaries who collectively were more than the sum of their parts.

The same is true in smart cities, whether or not governments and planners acknowledge it. The best smart city initiatives in the world need to “talk” to buildings and local spaces in order to be fully efficient. To simplify, if the vision of smart cities is an operating system for urban areas, it doesn’t make much sense if each building in the city has its own OS, none of which can talk to each other.

This is one reason why I’m excited to see the end result of Sidewalk Labs’ project in Toronto. If the company’s vision is fully realized, the neighborhood will be transformed into a vibrant new development with different scales of innovation, from the neighborhood itself down to the very construction and connectivity of the buildings that constitute it.

Other industry observers agree that smart city development needs to come from the bottom and the top. In a recent article for Smart Cities World, semiconductor company U-Blox CEO Thomas Seiler characterized the role of smart buildings in smart cities as both part of the problem and the solution. After all, smart buildings will eventually feed data and power back into the city system as a whole.

One company wholeheartedly working to build cities from the building up is Venn, a startup seeking to unify neighborhoods through shared buildings and spaces. Venn CEO and cofounder Or Bokobza told us that “some people have compared Venn to Sidewalk Labs because of our shared interest in creating the cities and neighborhoods of the future, but we have different approaches when it comes to realizing this vision: Venn starts from the bottom-up, enabling people to shape their neighborhood and leveraging technology for more communal, urban ‘neighboring’ experiences”.

It seems like a good place to start. It’s in the name: neighborhoods are about neighbors, an element often lacking in apartment complexes, condos, and subdivisions. It’s largely the search for good neighbors that has led to the growth of co-living spaces like Common, where renters share common areas like lounges and kitchens, and often benefit from top-notch amenities like IoT systems and well-stocked game rooms.

For Venn, the answer to building smart, livable cities isn’t in the “walled garden” co-living approach. “While all-inclusive amenity buildings may bring services and resources to an area, they often act like exclusive clubs that limit residents’ urban exploration, neighborhood participation, and community engagement”, Or added.

Smart cities need to appreciate the bottom-up, building-first approach. But each building itself is a community and a living, breathing part of a neighborhood. For the sake of our cities, it’s important not to forget that.

Associate Publisher, Propmodo Research

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Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.