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When Google and the City of Toronto unveiled their Sidewalk Labs project for Toronto’s waterfront in 2017, the intention was to build a living model of the smart city of the future.

The neighbourhood would be outfitted with the latest in sensors and gadgets, the data of its day-to-day activities crunched to provide services without equal. Two years on, the project is mired in controversy and delay, as privacy activists accuse Google of surveillance-state ambitions and chastise the city for handing public assets to a private company with insufficient oversight and transparency.

Whatever happens to Sidewalk Labs, the smart city is on its way—and in some places, parts of it have already arrived. Here are five next-generation city-building tools already making cities work better.

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Qilai Shen/Panos Pictures

CITY Jinan, China | SMART Highway surfaces that gather data and transfer energy

The bedrock of many smart-city plans is the street itself.

By transforming inert asphalt into a surface that can gather information and provide services, the next-generation road promises to provide the most important platform for smart-city building.

In the industrial city of Jinan, north of Shanghai, the prototype for that platform is now in place. A one-kilometre stretch of expressway has been paved with a three-layer surface designed to host a wide range of technology, including solar panels to generate electricity, and a transparent top material that can be embedded with sensors and wires.

The full suite of technologies to be tested hasn't yet been unveiled, but officials are discussing everything from sensors to gather data about traffic and weather to digital messaging for passing vehicles and on-the-fly charging for electric cars. The Chinese government's “Made in China 2025” plan emphasizes building both the electric vehicles that will use such roadways, and the gadgets and software to operate them.


CITY West Hollywood, California | SMART Bus shelters become community hubs

Getting more people to use public transit is often a central goal of smart-city plans, and in WeHo, a handful of bus shelters have become the most visible feature of an ambitious strategy. The shelters themselves aim to be community hubs rather than simple waiting spots, with USB ports, free WiFi, screens showing realtime bus and community bulletins, and stylish seating and roofs. And they’re just one piece of a larger plan that includes on-demand shuttles for short transit trips; embedding sensors, digital communications and more in street lamps; and changing the way data is gathered and shared across the small municipality.

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CITY Columbus, Ohio | SMART A unified transportation app in a single tap

What if a trip from Point A to Point B were as tidy as a Google Maps search? That’s the idea behind the transportation planning app being developed in Columbus. The app will allow trip planning across all options—conventional transit, taxis, ride-sharing, car- and bike-sharing—and users will be able to select their preference and pay for the whole trip in a single tap.

The app, still in development, was the centrepiece of a “Smart Columbus” plan that beat out cities like San Francisco and Austin to win the U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge.

It will eventually produce citywide electric vehicle charging, driverless-car infrastructure, data upgrades and more.

Martin Carlsson/ALAMY

CITY Gothenburg, Sweden | SMART Moving people by driverless electric transport

The shuttle bus, manufactured by a French company called Navya, seats only 10 passengers, and its maximum speed is a mere 20 kilometres per hour. Still, the little vehicle, which plied the streets of Gothenburg in the summer of 2018, carries a substantial load. The bus is powered by electricity and has no driver. And Swedish officials hope it is one of many signs that Gothenburg—where Volvo was born—is the global epicentre of smart, clean transportation.

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The test is part of Gothenburg's ElectriCity project, a partnership of 15 organizations, including Volvo, Ericsson and the Swedish government.

Another project runs three fully electric and 12 hybrid buses on busy commuter routes. There’s also a “demo arena” for next-generation projects and a growing transport research hub. Sweden boasts some of the world’s most ambitious climate targets, and initiatives like ElectriCity are hoping to lead them there.

Orbon Alija/Getty Images

CITY Barcelona | SMART Dividing congested urban sections into superblocks

Sometimes the most transformative plans are about priorities and policy more than technology. That’s certainly the case for Barcelona’s “superblocks,” which aim to liberate streets and public spaces from congestion, pollution and dangerous, car-centred urban design. The concept divides the dense Spanish city into four-block-by-four-block sectors, and then limits traffic to local and service vehicles at 10 kilometres per hour. In the five superblocks already in place, the streets have become pedestrian promenades, playgrounds, parks and street markets. And as the superblock network expands, it could reduce vehicle traffic enough to make the whole city’s transport system work better.

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