Smart City Building — Enter The Urbanist

What is city but the people? The great acceleration to urbanize with digital technologies presents alternative futures for cities. Digital platforms empower residents to make smarter choices for a more livable place. Smart City building is illusive but millennials know one when they see one. This is a fictional story of an urbanist watching and latching on a Tech Giant’s Smart City Building efforts in Toronto.

Our Courtyard Our Studio, Bohemian Paris of Today (1900) via Wikimedia Commons

Urbanist Smithy disembarks from the 514 (Cherry) King Street eastbound streetcar for a photography session. He’s going to a studio for a major gig near the OCAD (Ontario College of Arts and Design) University Onsite Gallery inside the Entertainment District. He’s reasonably happy with this gig, and the King Street Transit Pilot giving the 514 Streetcar priority along the city core, and limiting other motorists to using King Street one block at a time, is showing promise. Despite grumbling car drivers, and a restaurant owner erecting a “Fuddle duddle” middle finger ice sculpture outside shop, this is a step forward for his ideas of a livable city. The streetcar ride has become more predictable with less car traffics blocking the streetcar track. He’s for public transit, bike lanes, high walk scores, social housing and green space in his home city.

Photographer is a niche payer to creating new media platforms but he always enjoys working with engineers, designers, artists and musicians in diverse teams. The “Studio” is really a makeshift office with people walking, talking, brainstorming, debating, coding, sketching and showing off their latest produces. Getting these people working together is like hoarding cats into a pan but somehow clustering of young creatives always produce unexpected results. This team is specifically assembled for a media platform project, to ensure the job is done this quarter, while funding is still available. Smithy is the photographer and doubling up as cheerleader for the techies in this gig. He has two battle cries as motivator and cheerleader: “Domination!” copying from the early feisty Zuckerberg before his attorneys told him to stop, and “Power to the Creative Class!” imitating the enthusiasm from his favourite professor. His humorous acts are always well received by the time and work stressed media platform development team.

This temporary assignment, and most of his other gigs, is short term but he enjoys working in the delightful ambience of an informal office. The decorum resembles living the Bohemian Paris of To-day (1900) lifestyle with baristas, modernists, sculptors, engineers, idealists and socialites working and celebrating together, during the last great acceleration of innovation and societal changes, at turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. This is his model of livable city for a new Creative Class to socialize, interact and generate ideas for the next great acceleration.

The second industrial revolution, with nation-states crafts and modern capitalism, has unleashed forces that push the limits of people’s capacity to control and even understand with dire consequences on the environment from dirty power plants, automobiles, highways to sprawling cities. Smithy has always maintained that the millennials need not make the same choices when mobile-citizenry, innovative financing, digital technologies, internet and artificial intelligence are replacing the traditional social institutions, limited-liability-joint-stock companies, chemistry, dirty energies & machines. The next great acceleration will have knowledge making knowledge, and they need to response for some better outcomes under a different set of driving forces and circumstances. Despite his usual care-less demeanour on gigs, he is a high-spirited Urbanist trained on the liberal arts traditions.

Smithy did his degree from a primarily teaching university. He picked the school for better undergraduate classroom experience, and wasn’t disappointed when he graduated with a BA in Urban Economics. His undergraduate experience and interaction with fellow students and professors were great on the small and picturesque campus. He thoroughly enjoyed those late night dialogues with folksy professors and chummy students on tiny cafes and bars inside the campus. The competitive Medical/Doctoral research universities, or so called Comprehensive universities hoping to move up in the University League Table, wouldn’t suit him. The Bohemian lifestyle of a small teaching university campus was the wonderland, for a left-leaning and self-styled urbanist, to debate ills of sub-urbanization and post-industrial society. Liberal arts training was good for character building, socializing and intellectual debates but not a career-track profession. Smithy did manage to find jobs in the modern gig economy on multi-disciplinary teams with serial commitments and unsteady incomes. He has always deemed himself as one of the new Creative Class with “people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music, and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. Around this core, the Creative Class also includes a broader group of creative professionals in business and finance, law, health care, and related fields” for the next industrial revolution.

Smithy’s home city is making spaces for the influx of young creatives and tech workers with condo developments. Whole neighbourhoods are revitalized for the world-citizens & suburbanites to move back into the city core but he has no illusion of a utopia is coming to his own city. When this super-creative core workers with high demand-value skill move into a city, they always push real estates price up and toughing out existing servers, artists and musicians with unsteady income in venerable neighbourhoods. The argument that tearing down old neighbourhoods for condo development would benefit everyone is a myth. Landlords can always sell their property at a premium, and move to better locations, to make ways for new condos but this is not an option for renters. They are being squeezed out by the hot condo market, and high price chain-stores are displacing mom-and-pop shops and lay back cafes. Smithy has an insight and joke for his buddies to describe a blooming city with increasing high income Creative Class population: “When Starbucks start showing up, and colonizing your neighbourhood, it’s time to search for new digs before eviction notices push you out for the next condo development.” He loves the Bohemian lifestyle and prosperity of the new Creative Class but frustrated in his left-leaning spirit.

His folksy history professor has taught him that not one industrial but parallel scientific, commercial and democratic revolutions with powerful colliding and reinforcing forces have created the great acceleration for big cities to emerge. He’s fully aware of the historical rise and demise of great cities, with high concentration of people, infrastructure, capital and industrial prowess, over the years. New forces of revolutions, and the Creative Class with mighty digital technologies, finTech & commercial innovations and sociopolitical influences are descending on his home turf. This left-leaning liberal and self-styled Urbanist is feeling some strong and accelerating headwinds blowing his way.

Google’s offer to redevelop the Toronto waterfront as a smart city of the future prompts the question: is Google’s future the one that the rest of us want? Smithy stumbled on a rhetoric Tweet from the Guardian. He’s skeptical of Tech Giants doing goods for the populaces but his curiosity allowed him to browse through the article and the whole 196-page Vision-Section of the RFP submission from Sidewalk Labs. Would smart cities have environmental friendly social housing, pedestrians friendly walk paths, sidewalk stalls, bike lanes and no cars? If true, that’s going to be a perfect enclave for the Creative Class. It didn’t take long for Smithy, being a self-styled urbanist, to probe beyond the hot air. The government with an arms length business entity is doing a Private-Public Partnership (3P) RFP to redevelop the waterfront not too far away from his Bohemian home. Sidewalk Labs has everything for a livable city’s on the Vision Statements but no details, without the full and confidential RFP submission, and no specifics on execution. The smart city ideas, with high score on Technology, Tolerance and Talent (3 Ts) index for the Creative Class, is touching Smithy’s soul. He made a decision to sign up for Sidewalk Toronto’s First Public Roundtable Meeting while walking to work on his latest gig.

Toronto would still be cold in March but Smithy had a date.