Who owns the City of the Future?

In a recent article, I referred to Google and Levi’s as an unlikely pairing, but the Oct 17 press conference in Toronto tops that — the Prime Minister of Canada and the Executive Chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) side-by-side announcing a plan to create a new district in Toronto to serve as a test-bed for new urban technology. Is this an example of mega corporations now transcending borders to become ever more entrenched in our lives, with Governments powerless and even complicit? Or is it a progressive and welcome approach to tackling large scale issues affecting millions of lives?

Quayside is the name of the pilot redevelopment of 12 acres of southeastern waterfront in Toronto. Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs has committed $50 million to the initial phase of the project. If successful, the scope could expand to include up to 800 acres — very nearly the size of New York’s Central Park. The press release declares “The district will become a place for tens of thousands of people to live, work, learn, and play — and to create and advance new ideas that improve city life, from climate-positive energy systems that can deliver a new standard in sustainability, to self-driving transit that makes streets safer, to new construction techniques that can lower housing costs”.

Urban Legends

The vision proposal for Quayside at times reads like something out of a science fiction novel — snow will melt as it hits the heated pavements, private cars will be largely banned, replaced by autonomous cars and shuttles, with delivery and garbage collecting robots operating in underground tunnels. Buildings will be modular, outdoor areas will be dynamically shaded, and parking would be priced in real time.

Our current cities are unsustainable. As 80% of a growing world population becomes urbanised, we really do need to find ways to make city life at least no worse than now — and preferably better. Good urban development is hard. Cities grow organically over time, which is a nice way of saying they frequently degenerate into inefficiency and decay. As city planners look for solutions, technology has frequently been proposed as a panacea for their woes. Few large scale human problems will be solved without technology, but no large scale problems with be solved with technology alone.

Though technology probably does offer significant benefits, deploying it amidst the chaos and constraint of a vibrant city is hugely challenging. Fragile, unproven or soon-to-be-obsolete technologies don’t fit well in a world of bureaucratic planning, harsh conditions and time frames longer than the average age of a Silicon Valley programmer. Rigid structures and daily practicalities make infrastructural changes especially slow and expensive.

Starting over

Quayside will be built with technology included from the outset, not as an afterthought. It will be designed for self driving cars only, to bypass all of the tricky coexistence-with-human-drivers challenges that will hamper Sidewalk’s sister company, Waymo. The new neighborhood will be replete with cameras and sensors, monitoring everything from traffic movements, to air quality, noise levels as well as energy usage, and even garbage. This will be the embodiment of the so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT) and “Big Data” buzzwords beloved of technophiles.

Picking this undeveloped part of Toronto offers what urban planners dream off — a new space to start over. Here, they can experiment and rethink at scale how housing, streets and infrastructure are built. As a new area, there are no incumbents to placate or norms to maintain. A clean site means no worries about existing structures — these are rare freedoms in urban planning. And Alphabet’s backing offers a chance to plan without the usual public financing constraints. But this freedom comes at a price — although Sidewalk is a separate company under the Alphabet umbrella, there will surely be some raised eyebrows at a US company weaving itself into the fabric of a Canadian city.

Transplant

If any success coming from the Quayside project is predicated on starting over, the whole experiment stands to become irrelevant. The lessons learned need to be transferrable to other cities if this is to move beyond a cool project. Any innovations that absolutely require starting over will struggle in existing cities and won’t scale to the returns that surely motivate Sidewalk.

Prime Minister Trudeau emphasized the potential beyond this Toronto neighborhood: “The new technologies that emerge from the Quayside have the potential to improve city living — making housing more affordable and public transit more convenient for Canadians and their families” while Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs/Former Deputy Mayor of NYC added that “This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world.”

Improving Privacy

The movie Robocop painted a picture of a dystopian future where a single large private company (OCP) ran the city in a future Detroit devoid of privacy. According to Sidewalk Lab’s plan, neighbourhood residents and municipal staff will each have accounts that permit them to interact with the city environment and services. Visitors can also opt to have an account to help them experience the neighbourhood. A smartphone will not only be de rigeur, it will be compulsory — without the right app, you won’t be a citizen.

This level of integration, along with the sensor network raises immediate privacy concerns, and, perhaps humbled by the DeepMind NHS controversy in the UK where seeming good intentions fell foul of data ownership issues, it’s interesting that they’ve sought to preempt these concerns with a dedicated statement on the importance of designed-in privacy. Although dwarfed by the hefty 196-page vision document itself, it is telling that the only additional document provided on the official website is devoted to privacy and “Never compromise user privacy” is one of the 4 principles in the digital layer of the vision.

Of course, while the goals of intensive tracking and surveillance are learning and efficiency, one person’s administrative efficiency is another’s oppression. And while initiatives like China’s facial recognition project may raise concerns, it’s worth remembering that living in Quayside will be voluntary and those who choose to live there will know that their every move will be tracked, ostensibly for their benefit. According to the plan, “Sidewalk expects that many residents, in general, will be attracted by the idea of living in a place that will continuously improve.” I also hope they remember that the people who choose to live in this new world won’t necessarily be representative of wider populations.

Inclusion

Technology firms are frequently accused of operating in a bubble and not solving real world problems, so I think it’s a positive to see such big investments into solving urban issues. Though of course not done on an altruistic basis, it’s worth considering if a mutually beneficially relationship can be arrived at between tech giants and city planners for the greater good.

Sidewalk’s stated approach for this project will be for residential facilities throughout the neighborhood to house residents with a range of incomes. While the diversity within the neighborhood will be important, it will also be interesting to see the dynamic that develops between Quayside and the rest of Toronto. The creation of a tech-themed zone is perhaps not too far removed from the “Factions” portrayed in the popular Divergent books and movies.

Despite the comprehensive nature of the RFP process to select Sidewalk as the partner for this project, and their detailed proposal, there remains a lot of work to be done before the first brick of the future urban zone can be laid. The first step? There will be a year-long consultation process across the wider Toronto community with local policymakers, city leaders, academics, and activists.

Is it Smart?

There have, of course, been smart city experiments before, just nothing on this scale in an existing major city, and with this profile. According to the official website, “Sidewalk Toronto will combine forward-thinking urban design and new digital technology to create people-centered neighborhoods that achieve precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity”. Might it seem churlish to criticize or oppose such worthy goals ?

As author Adam Greenfield put it “The wholesale surrender of municipal management to an algorithmic tool-set would seem to repose an undue amount of trust in the party responsible for authoring the algorithm”.

The stated aims of the project are quite altruistic-sounding:

  • Establish a complete community that provides a superior quality of life for a diverse population of residents, workers, and visitors
  • Create a destination for people, companies, startups, and local organizations to advance solutions to the challenges facing cities
  • Serve as a model for sustainable neighborhoods throughout Toronto and cities around the world

But, of course, Sidewalk is a commercially-motivated part of Alphabet’s strategy to expand into new areas. It’s likely we’ll continue to see tech’s advance into new realms — recent years have already seen tech companies spend more on content than TV networks, pour billions into autonomous cars, advance into our homes with smart technologies, experiment with logistics drones as well as expand into groceries and even longevity research. This is all happening as regulators probe their core activities and shareholders press for continued growth, which requires new markets and spending of their cash hoards.

Although Sidewalk Labs doesn’t actually become the owner or landlord in Toronto, it gets a living laboratory to refine solutions it will hope to market around the world for vast sums. For its part of the bargain, Toronto will raise its profile and get an opportunity to shape the next generation of cities. How much of that lies in technology remains to be seen but at least ambitious experiments like Toronto Quayside will give us some clues.