Streets and Sidewalks in Alphabet’s City
The City of the Future
Humans have always been captivated by the idea of the future city. Fiction and film paint vivid pictures, from Lang’s Metropolis to Spielberg’s Minority Report. Academics have explored the question of civic futures, focusing on urban form (Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow) to technological progress (Townsend, Smart Cities), globalization (Sassen, The Global City) to digital integration (Castells, Networked City), economic trends (Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class) to justice (Soja, Spatial Justice; Fainstein, The Just City), diversity (Sandercock, Cosmopolis), sharing (McLaren and Agyeman, Sharing Cities) and equity (Harvey, Rebel Cities).
Many of these visions center on the relationship between the private and public sectors — to which each brings strengths and weaknesses. The private sector can provide speed, efficiency, innovation capacity, and economic viability, but businesses might also be guided by private gains over the public good. The public sector, in contrast, exists to ensure social welfare, democratic deliberation, and equitable demographic representation, but government might suffer from bureaucratic traps, proceed at a slow pace, and avoid risk.
Public Private Partnerships in the Digital Age
Beyond traditional public-private-partnerships (PPPs) of the late 20th and early 21st century, these two sectors are coming together in radically new ways today, in an attempt to solve some of the deep-seated challenges characteristic of contemporary urban conditions.
For example, Boston — a city with perpetual traffic problems — experienced a crisis in 2015. The streets were already blanketed with early February snow, and the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory parade was threatened by a blizzard. In the face of traffic lock-down and potentially dangerous road conditions, the city turned to an alternate mobility solution. A traffic app called Waze (which is owned by Alphabet, Inc.) could provide real-time traffic information to the city’s traffic management teams, and the city could distribute the Patriots’ parade route to drivers, automatically re-routing them around the tangle and easing overall congestion.
The ad-hoc partnership was so effective that it has now become a part of Mayor Marty Walsh’s ongoing efforts to use data in city government, through an official partnership between MassDOT and Waze’s Connected Citizens Program. City departments pipe traffic information (such as road closures, traffic jams, accidents and construction) directly to the app, and real-time traffic data from users flows back to the municipal traffic management center, where hundreds of signalized intersections are controlled and programmed in response to changing traffic conditions. Waze now has over 700,000 monthly Boston-based users.
The relationship between Waze and the City of Boston demonstrates that user networks and city-citizen platforms can create powerful civic data. This can be used to implement solutions for immediate challenges, provide political ‘fixes’ or achieve efficiencies. It can also, however, be seen as reactive decision-making in the face of a crisis — turning to a private sector savior. In the case of Boston, fixing urban mobility will still require brave new political thinking and significant infrastructure investment. There simply is no app for that (New York’s ongoing MTA financing crisis is clear proof).
From City Apps to City Operating Systems
There are countless examples of high profile, tech-driven public-private innovations for the future city. Though these are often exciting and new, in every case, they highlight opportunities and dangers. As we experiment with new urban technologies and platforms, it is important to consider how we approach public-private innovation in the digital era. Politicians, policy-makers and urban planners need new tech-literacy, and perhaps new regulatory regimes as they work with these new technologies.
Civic tech products are important, and the private sector may indeed be better suited to develop them, particularly high tech. And city governments are building more and more capacity to work with them and innovate. But apps aren’t everything: 2017 saw a radical break in the history of urban planning and civic innovation.
Google’s parent and global technology giant Alphabet, “a holding company that gives ambitious projects the resources, freedom, and focus to make their ideas happen” is proposing to build a city from the ground up — not only physical structures, and not only user-facing apps, but municipal protocols themselves — the “operating system” of cities, like zoning and procurement:
“Sidewalk Toronto is a joint effort by Waterfront Toronto and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs to create a new kind of mixed-use, complete community on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront, beginning with the creation of Quayside. Sidewalk Toronto will combine forward-thinking urban design and new digital technology to create people-centred neighbourhoods that achieve precedent- setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity,” as stated on the Sidewalk Toronto website.
The development will occupy 325 hectares (800 acres) of post-industrial land on Toronto’s lakeshore, and it will involve direct engagement with many levels of government.
The proposal includes remarkable visions of an urban future, from autonomous cars to micro housing to adaptive weather technology. Many of these are desirable, efficient and exciting. And yet there are legitimate concerns about Alphabet’s financial gains, about users’ privacy, and about setting a global precedent. Will cities compete to host Alphabet’s next city? Will this new waterfront development be subject to the same opportunities and dangers as Waze in Boston? How can the work of urban theorists inform our collective decision-making? How can a private company plan in the public interest?
In coming months we will be posting a series of opinion pieces and research on the implications of this development, and we welcome comments and discussion.
About the authors:
Julian Agyeman is Professor at Tufts University, Visiting Professor at McGill University School of Urban Planning and Cities for People Fellow at the McConnell Foundation.