The Rise of the Smart Precinct
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In autumn 2017, the City of Toronto unveiled plans for a special partnership with a Google company, Sidewalk Labs, on the redevelopment of a prime waterfront site comprising 800 acres of east downtown land.
The joint project will not simply regenerate Toronto’s old industrial quayside with a mixed- use development, including workspace; it will create an entirely new digitally enabled district that is equipped to adopt the latest technologies. It is just the latest evidence of a phenomenon that has been termed ‘the smart precinct.’
Consider Sidewalk Labs’ proposed vision for the site.
Taxibots, small self-driving cars controlled by app-based services such as Waymo and Lyft, would form the transport backbone of the neighbourhood. Larger self-driving buses would support larger scale movement of people. Garbage robots operating in an underground network of utility tunnels would manage the collection of trash and recyclables.
Tall modular buildings on the site would replace traditional construction, using new types of wood technology. Comfortable microclimates, protected from wind, would be created with the use of sheltering canopies. Pop-up retail would be featured within a heavily pedestrianized district that makes a feature of walkable streets.
Even if only a fraction of the Sidewalk Labs vision for Toronto’s east waterfront is realised in built form, it still represents a leap forward in shaping the future of the smart precinct. The underlying idea is to adopt building intelligence, smart services, and big data to mix together a mutually reinforcing set of property offers in one urban quarter for the age of the digital knowledge economy.
Why is the smart precinct an emerging concept for these times? It is all to do with scale.
There is currently huge workplace buzz around the potential of the smart building to do everything from improving the employee experience to reducing running costs. But focusing on the single facility is a limiting factor. Many real estate professionals want to control building performance across a broader estate portfolio.
There is also unprecedented focus on the smart city that seeks to orchestrate vast urban flows of people, knowledge, energy, and resources; but the scale of the citywide plan is too large for many developers, policymakers, and architects to get their heads around.
This is where smart precincts, which form the essential building blocks to create smart cities, start to make sense. As the Toronto waterfront project suggests, they are ideally scaled to allow us to understand the opportunities. Smart precincts are bounded just enough for all those stakeholders in the smart city to see the potential of a physical-digital blend. It is also the right size to act as a giant testbed for urban innovations that can be transferred to other city neighbourhoods and districts if successful.
The Australian company Mirvac is among those property developers taking a growing interest in this new type of digital district. In a report called Intermix, co-produced with WORKTECH Academy, Mirvac’s Paul Edwards comments: “These districts build on prior experience and learning in designing for creative clusters and mixed-use developments, but they go a stage further in the way they integrate physical experiences with data-driven services and smart technologies.”
Smart precincts don’t just mix the physical and the digital; they encourage public-private partnerships, co-locate start-ups next to large corporates and small specialty stores next to major retail chains, and generally try to blend work and life in a way that strictly zoned cities have failed to do in the past. The ‘intermix’ has many strands.
Mirvac is already working on several smart precincts, including ATP (Australian Technology Park) in the Sydney suburb of Eveleigh, and has identified four different models for such developments. Some smart precincts are led by flexible workspace as in the case of ATP; others are built around a large retail cluster (as in the case of Hudson Yards in New York) or a residential district (as in Songdo near Seoul in South Korea) or a transport hub (London King’s Cross regeneration project).
There are, of course, further models emerging that stretch beyond Mirvac’s four typologies. An education-led precinct based on the university campus as the oldest smart district, is a popular option; or a culture-led precinct, such as the South Bank in London); a healthcare/life sciences precinct, such as Lake Nona Medical City in Orlando, Florida; or even an airport-based tech precinct on the aero-city model.
Some experts argue that smart precincts should provide a more complex and ambitious mix of space uses and typologies in a way that that defies simple characterisation. This view goes against allowing one typology to dominate the mixed-use precinct, and sees real value in the intermix between several different functions. It does appear, however, that there are common denominators across different innovation precincts around the world such as connectivity (with an upgraded fibre network), transport links (local, regional and international), place-making, and culture.
Whatever the lead use, what makes the difference in these digital districts is a focus on such things as connected experience, wellbeing, community curation, fluid boundaries, and the sharing economy. Smart precincts aim to be a destination at all times, not a business district that is dead on evenings and weekends.
Smart precincts will emerge as building blocks of the smart city in all different shapes and sizes. But one thing they will share is that they will look less like standard business districts and more like vibrant, mixed-use urban communities of an age before strict city zoning wiped them out. Remember the dynamically mixed Manhattan shoreline communities that were demolished to make way for elevated expressways in 20th century New York? Smart precincts hold the promise that the rich patina of city residents living and working on one urban quarter can be revived.
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I get how the notion of how smart precincts can be interlocked together to eventually build up the smart city. By definition, building by design has to be much more economical and capable than retrofit. However, I am concerned to ensure we don’t open up massive inequality and inequity pressures if working to a wholly commercial investment model. Which begs the question about how developers and city administrations commercialise the technology or operating environment people would be living/working in, not to mention how we can effectively retrofit existing neighbourhoods.