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Tech Companies Want to Run Our Cities

Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs won’t be the last corporate attempt to gain power over urban infrastructure

Jathan Sadowski
Oct 18, 2018 · 9 min read
Credit: beastfromeast/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty

In Rio de Janeiro, a NASA-style control center aggregates data from hundreds of surveillance cameras and sensors built into the city since it partnered with IBM in 2010. In Phoenix, Arizona, Google spin-off Waymo is shuttling workers around in self-driving cars in partnership with the city’s transit network. And in the Chinese city of Xiangyang, advanced facial recognition technology from one of the country’s many surveillance startups gives residents entry to a housing complex while adding to a police database.

Dozens of these kinds of prototype smart-city projects are being implemented worldwide, variously meshing together machine learning, location tracking, and facial recognition in multiple inventive ways to operate efficient commercial and civic systems. Yet there is a quiet war underway for control of these wired cityscapes — one the tech companies have every chance of claiming as their latest strategic victory.

Long-term recession and unrelenting austerity measures have meant that many cities in the West are struggling with outdated, inadequate infrastructure and underfunded, overcapacity agencies. As political economist Jamie Peck explains in a report on “austerity urbanism,” state and local governments in the United States have been hit hard by slashed budgets and privatized services. Due to growing private loans, many municipalities are deep in debt or even bankrupt — while under pressure to be “engines of economic growth,” as they are often called by policymakers and financial institutions like the World Bank.

This post-crash landscape offers the perfect conditions for digital platforms that want to take control of the services central to life in our cities: how we travel, how we get food, how we rent rooms, how we find workspace.

Uber, Airbnb, and WeWork were all founded a decade ago in the aftermath of the global financial crash, yet they are now dominant features of the biggest cities in the country. Their strategy is to commodify social and economic transactions via their platforms. Uber says it’s not a taxi company, but a platform that offers transportation as a service. WeWork doesn’t lease offices and meeting rooms, it’s a platform that offers space as a service. Jeff Bezos even called Amazon’s Mechanical Turk “humans as a service.”

Of course, citizens who object to being commodified in this way could choose not to patronize certain platforms. But that likely means going without the kind of services they provide, since these business models rely on changing regulation, driving out competition, and gaining monopoly power. In a paper exploring “regulatory entrepreneurship,” law professors Elizabeth Pollman and Jordan Barry explain that this practice “is not new, but has become increasingly salient in recent years as companies from Airbnb to Tesla, and from DraftKings to Uber, have become agents of legal change.”

Unlike city agencies with barely a penny to spare, tech companies have massive reserves of capital to burn. Uber has openly said it wants to focus on neighborhoods that already have mass transit, introducing services like UberHop that effectively compete with buses — even while research shows that these kind of apps typically reduce the number of journeys on foot, bike, and public transit. Elon Musk also has designs on public transit, deciding that buses belong in underground tunnels. Through political lobbying and astroturfing campaigns, these companies seduce cities with promises of innovation while disrupting and campaigning against organizations and individuals they see as holdouts: That’s a nice public transportation system you have there — it would be a shame if something happened to it.

These platforms acquire what law professor Frank Pasquale calls functional sovereignty: “From room-letting to transportation to commerce, persons will be increasingly subject to corporate, rather than democratic, control.” As platforms enact the “techno-capitalist takeover of cities,” they are showing just how much value there is to extract. No longer content with reigning over cyberspace, platforms have realized what property developers knew all along: that city space is where the real action’s at.

Like blood in the water, this has attracted companies like the tech conglomerate Alphabet (the parent company of Google), which have as much money as ambition. While platforms like Uber have been busy commodifying the functions of our cities, Alphabet aims to take things to the next level by owning and operating parts of our cities — essentially becoming bus driver, plumber, and mayor. The rise of this platform urbanism exemplifies an undemocratic process of not only building cities but also making and shutting down futures.

Test-Bed Toronto

Alphabet has gotten into the business of city governance through Sidewalk Labs, its urban technology subsidiary. Back in 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that Sidewalk Labs was on the hunt for cities — “likely economically struggling municipalities grappling with decay” — where it can take over districts and turn them into places “heavily integrated with technology.”

While Sidewalk might frame these developments in terms of a mutually beneficial partnership, it was clear early on that it wasn’t looking for an equal marriage: “One key element is that Sidewalk would be seeking autonomy from many city regulations, so it could build without constraints that come with things like parking or street design or utilities.”

In October 2017, Toronto announced it would be the test bed for Sidewalk’s vision of the urban future by allowing it to redevelop a waterfront district called Quayside. The 12-acre district is part of the 800-acre Port Lands area. Sidewalk plans to turn Quayside into “a neighbourhood built as an urban innovation platform.” This involves creating what it calls a “programmable public realm” — coded and controlled by Sidewalk’s team, of course. With this district, Alphabet will have its own “urban living laboratory” where it can experiment with new smart systems and planning techniques. It can study how they work in the real world and how they work on real people. It’s a bold proposal that includes modular buildings, underground trash robots, and snow-melting pavement.

But the project is already faltering, even before Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto, the tri-governmental organization that oversees Quayside and Port Lands, can finalize their plans. The process itself has been defined by secrecy, setbacks, and skepticism. The high-profile development has drawn the attention of journalists, academics, and activists, yet the use of nondisclosure agreements and closed meetings — something common for Silicon Valley but seen as undemocratic for civic projects and volunteer committees — have put a stranglehold on information. There have been a series of delays with the release of important documents, including the master innovation and development plan, which will finally provide a comprehensive blueprint for what Quayside will involve and how it will be built.

Waterfront Toronto has also had to deal with three recent resignations, including the CEO — a fourth happened while writing this article — triggered by Sidewalk’s aggressive approach to taking charge of the project. As former board member and prominent developer Julie Di Lorenzo explained in her resignation letter, “I do not believe it was the intention of the three levels of government to allow a single limited company to become our filter, our gatekeeper and our agent. Yet through an unconventional and an opportunistic series of circumstances, I feel we have allowed this to happen.”

There is more at stake than developing one smart district or demonstrating the effectiveness of experimental technology. Sidewalk — which is being driven by an incredibly wealthy tech corporation that thinks its previous mission of “organizing the world’s information” was too small in scope — is explicit that its goal is to export this model of techno-corporate urbanism to cities around the world.

It’s no surprise that Sidewalk is reportedly claiming ownership of the intellectual property created by the other firms hired to work on Quayside so that it can “incorporate [the IP] into future phases and other work.” Local governments, businesses, and the local economy are left out of Sidewalk’s global ambitions. Toronto, it seems, is just the staging ground for a larger strategy to gain power over how cities are built, managed, and governed.

Whose Future?

The smart city is a battle for our imagination. We should think of initiatives like those from Sidewalk — as well as major purveyors of smart urbanism like IBM and Cisco — as campaigns to direct and delimit what we can imagine for the benefit of private corporations. Those who are selling smartness to cities do not set out a suite of scenarios that represent radically different visions. For companies like Sidewalk Labs, the aim is to establish their version of a smart city as the future — the only one available or possible. There are variations to the “solutions” they offer, but they rarely deviate from core practices based on surveillance, control, and their own strategic and ideological interest.

Even though the companies make use of phrases like “participation” and might run community forums, these exercises typically take the form of public relations rather than public engagement. Input from citizens can be useful for tailoring how the projects are sold to the public. It might result in tweaks and assurances, but rarely does it translate into transformative change that challenges the nature and goals of the project.

Research on public engagement with emerging technology shows that these processes often have weak impacts on policy outcomes. They look good in a press release and project democratic virtue, but then they can be forgotten. My own work shows how public engagement can help participants build the capacity to understand complex technical issues and empower them to seek change, but only if each step of the process is designed with these purposes in mind. Even then, there is no guarantee of success. It is far easier, instead, to use these community forums as a way to assuage fears by putting a friendly face on the project. If people were only informed, then they would accept the future being built. This mode of public engagement is more like pacification than participation.

The idea of a smart city plays on our desire — or, rather, the desire of politicians and planners — for a deus ex machina to descend at the last minute and save us from a range of crises like brutal austerity, rapid urbanization, and catastrophic climate change.

We are promised a futuristic city that thrives in the face of imminent crisis. All we have to do is, piece by piece, hand over control of the city to corporations and trust in the benevolence of capitalism with Silicon Valley characteristics.

Yet the future on offer is more tragic than visionary. We don’t get a utopia that tackles tough social problems; we get high-tech solutions that cement the status quo — if we even get that. The smart cities turned ghost towns, including Masdar City in the UAE and Songdo, South Korea, should serve as a warning about the reality of marketing pitches and broken promises. These projects fail for many reasons: blowing budgets on expensive, glitchy tech; ignoring the cultural idiosyncrasies of different cities; focusing on short-term wins and rhetoric over substance; not securing buy-in from planners and communities. Even then, the global market for smart-city projects continues to balloon — especially as investment in Asia surpasses Europe and North America — with projections hovering around $1 trillion by 2020.

The tech sector is a prime case study in how grabbing hold of our collective imagination is one of the most insidious, effective tactics for enacting and maintaining power. Former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher knew this when she declared of her political program, “There is no alternative.” The imagineers at Sidewalk, IBM, Cisco, et al., know this, too. What threat could there be from people who cannot imagine anything else? For Sidewalk, the Quayside development and the Port Lands expansion are forgone conclusions before shovels even break ground.

We cannot forget, however, that the smart city is still a future in the making. We must not mistake a contingent plan for an inevitable fate. The level of scrutiny and resistance to Sidewalk’s plan in Toronto by people on the ground and involved with the process has been a rare display of the public trying to take hold of a major smart-city project. At the very least, it shows that companies like Sidewalk can be thrown off balance, held to account, and made to rethink their plans, especially when challenges happen early and often.

Redefining and redesigning the smart city won’t be easy, but it is necessary. Thatcher’s slogan was a declaration of triumph. It’s our job to show that the celebration is premature.

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