Beds and tables that disappear into ceilings.
Lobby consoles that let residents use facial recognition to enter their condo buildings.
Apps that alert you when packages are delivered to your building.
Sensors that detect water leaks.
They’re all part of the new smart technology that condos across the city and country are using to make life more efficient for residents.
All very futuristic. Some of it similar to the kind of technology that Sidewalk Labs says it would feature if given the go-ahead to launch its Quayside smart-city project on Toronto’s waterfront.
But does this technology, meant to make our home lives easier, help or hurt us?
There are experts who welcome the technology, saying it helps residents better manage their busy lives. But others say some of the devices raise concerns about privacy and consent, arguing the technology can be intrusive and residents may not be able to opt-out if, for example, they are economically vulnerable and have limited choices when it comes to living in a building that uses smart tech.
Sidewalk Labs, a Manhattan-based urban innovation firm and sister company of Google, recently invested in Ori, a Boston-based start-up that specializes in robotic furniture for homes. Using a device on a wall, residents can push a button that moves furniture out of the way to create more space.
“We’d like to use this here (at Quayside),” says Keerthana Rang, a spokesperson for Sidewalk Labs, the firm that wants to build a tech-based district in Toronto that would feature data-collecting sensors, wood buildings and self-driving cars, among other innovations.
Waterfront Toronto, a tri-government agency, has until May 20 to approve or reject the Quayside project.
Sidewalk Labs decided to invest in Ori this past fall (Swedish furniture maker Ikea has also formed a partnership with Ori) because space will be an issue in some of the condo units Sidewalk hopes to build at Quayside, their spokesperson says.
“We’re looking at a range of housing sizes. Forty per cent of the units will be family sized, but the rest will be one bedrooms and studios. How do we make use of small spaces? This product could help (address) that,” Rang said in an interview.
Sidewalk Labs has also had discussions with several firms operating in Canada that specialize in smart technology for highrise buildings.
One of them, Canadian-owned and operated 1Valet, which has offices in Gatineau, Que., and Toronto, integrates and connects smart technology in buildings.
Founder and president Jean-Pierre Poulin established the business after determining operators of big buildings were slow to adopt technologies that could bring about efficiencies.
Among the many products 1Valet produces is a smart console for building lobbies that features a large touchscreen that uses facial recognition technology. Residents have to take pictures of their face in advance. The photos are entered into the system and when the resident shows up at a later time the system scans their face to match the photo.
One building in Ottawa already has the technology.
“Everything uses bank-level inscription. These are people’s homes, where they go at the end of the day to feel safe. So we didn’t want to create this (system) without that being top of mind,” company spokesperson Hugo Moreira says.
Individuals concerned about having their images stored in a database can opt out of the system and use a fob, the company says.
(Sidewalk Labs has said it doesn’t intend to use facial recognition.)
1Valet also produces portals for property managers, where the latter can operate a building off site. A building’s HVAC system, boilers, water temperature — all of these systems and more can be put on a laptop dashboard that allows the property manager to monitor them. Notification alerts can tell the manager when something goes wrong, such as a boiler overheating.
Package delivery for residents has also been made easier through 1Valet.
Once a package arrives in the building, a resident receives an alert on a cellphone app. The resident goes to the room in the building where the package is stored in a secure locker. Using a QR code the resident virtually signs for the package and the storage door automatically opens.
“In Toronto, the average building gets 120 packages a day delivered — this process eliminates a lot of steps,” says Serge Perras, director of integration for 1Valet.
Other companies operating in Canada, including Markham-based SmartOne Solutions and Building Link Canada, a satellite of a New York-based company, offer similar smart-tech “solutions” based on artificial intelligence, cloud-based technology and mobile apps.
Hundreds of buildings in the Greater Toronto Area and Canada have been turning to this technology, operators say. The devices are popular in other parts of the world, particularly South Korea.
The highrise at 10 York St. in Toronto was one of the first in the GTA to be embedded with smart technology, including a wall pad in condo units that gives residents a security alarm, the ability to communicate with their concierge and cameras that link to entrances to the building. Residents can capture images of these areas.
Ted Maulucci, co-founder and president of SmartOne Solutions, which installed their “smart community” system at 10 York, says he doesn’t consider the technology invasive.
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“Say your parents are living in your condo and they are older, we can pair your phone to their suite. We have a smoke detector and a leak detector. You can see when they’ve burned something in the kitchen. You can tell if there is a leak. Are they OK? You can see a light went on. There’s a motion detector.”
SmartOne, alone, says they have smart tech in 10,000 units in more than 30 buildings in the GTA. The key to using this technology is “thinking about privacy every step of the way,” Maulucci says.
“So I don’t store someone’s date of birth because I don’t need it. The last name and date of birth creates identity. If there’s a need to store something that creates identity you encrypt it,” Maulucci says, adding, “You need to be thoughtful, smart and do your due diligence when it comes to dealing with identity.”
His firm is working with the University of Ottawa on data privacy issues and embracing the concept of privacy by design — a system developed by former Ontario information and privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, which calls for privacy to be prioritized at every step of the engineering process.
“We’re very aware of this issue (privacy) and have the right people behind it,” Maulucci says.
But Brenda McPhail, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s privacy, technology and surveillance project, says she has concerns about the wide array of “smart” applications increasingly being embedded in buildings.
“It is those technologies that collect either personal information, like facial recognition, or information about how we behave in our homes and offices, like waste or power sensors, that raise the biggest issues,” she says.
“It’s obvious why facial recognition is a privacy issue — it essentially turns our face into a fingerprint that can be read remotely, matched to other photos of us remotely, and potentially used for secondary purposes that extend far beyond just telling the door to open for us in a building lobby,” she says.
She went on to say it might be less obvious why behavioural information is a privacy concern if it’s just indicating when lights are turned on, for example, in what room, at what time.
“But when that information is being collected in a granular way about the place we live, it’s absolutely personal information about how we use the space in our homes, and it carries with it a big question about how that information might be used. Will the building of the future penalize us if we leave lights on when we go out?” McPhail says.
Her other concern is consent.
“What options do people have to meaningfully consent to the use of such technologies that are built into the infrastructure? Different people may well have very different vulnerabilities to the kinds of pervasive monitoring such products are capable of,” she went on to say.
“It’s very different to embed such sensors in an expensive condo and an affordable housing complex because of the degree of genuine choice individuals have about opting into the built-in monitoring embedded in the buildings,” she says.
However, Erin Bury, a technology expert and entrepreneur who is CEO of an online estate planning startup in Toronto, says as a longtime condo resident she appreciates any technology that helps her stay connected and helps her manage daily life in the building.
“I’m moving into a new building in a few weeks, and am hoping they use something like Bazinga, which is more user-friendly and reflective of the digital-savvy residents that make up Toronto’s condos. I say when it comes to condo tech, the more smart tech the better,” Bury says.
Bazinga is condo management software with numerous functions. For example, it allows users to create a private social network with fellow residents in a building, book amenity rooms and use a cellphone to receive urgent updates and alerts from management.
Smart technology is also useful, proponents say, for building maintenance issues such as water leaks.
Leak detection is a significant ongoing issue for building operators, says Nicholas Gill, director of marketing and sales for Building Link Canada.
“In the highrise condo market, it’s almost at crisis proportions. The number of condos and other buildings leaking in Toronto from taps left on, to water main leaks, we understand this,” Gill says.
The company has sensors that can pinpoint where the leaks are. Data collected from the sensors can also be tracked using analytics.
“We can look at analytics and we can say that a building had 42 leaks in the last 12 months. That kind of data starts flowing and providing directions to go in terms of how we need to approach and mitigate these issues” issues, Gill says, noting that leaks can impact insurance premiums, for example.
“Building operators are relying more heavily on companies like ours to create more efficiencies by providing more data from sensors and software so the (operators) can make better decisions,” Gill says.
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