Google wants to transform part of Toronto into a tech-filled city of the future. But while some citizens see it as an opportunity to build a second Silicon Valley north of the border, others are worried it may spiral out of control to resemble a data-fueled dystopian “1984” setting instead.
Innovation from the Internet Up
Sidewalk Labs is Alphabet Inc.’s urban innovation arm. And last October, the sister company of Google sealed a $50 million deal with the Canadian government to reimagine a dozen acres on the eastern waterfront of Toronto as “the world’s first neighborhood built from the Internet up.”
The move immediately caught the attention of politicians, urban planners, and local citizens, who mostly pondered what Google actually knows about running a city. The theme is nothing new; Silicon Valley’s head honchos have long been fascinated with making the world a better place through disruption, and many have eyed cities as the perfect place for this to occur.
Famous tech incubator Y Combinator is currently testing a monthly stipend program in Oakland, California to study how it improves quality of life. Famous tech investor Peter Thiel recently put down some money to help build an offshore island city. And Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have been interested in re-engineering urban areas for years.
A Vision Made More Concrete
Google began to take more initiative in urban innovation around 2014 when former CEO Eric Schmidt tapped Dan Doctoroff to spearhead the endeavor. Doctoroff was the deputy mayor of New York during former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure and helped reform the city during the post-9/11 era.
After forming Sidewalk Labs and headquartering it in the Hudson Yards neighborhood on Manhattan’s west side, Doctoroff quickly learned that it was far easier to bring change to areas where there weren’t too many people, and where governments would embrace it. Toronto’s eastern waterfront territory fit the bill, and Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, was interested in what Sidewalk Labs had to offer.
It also seemed like the right time to explore this possibility; tech development in Toronto was in the middle of a renaissance. And Google had benefited from this in the past; plenty of its recent AI developments were pioneered at the University of Toronto. The city’s population was composed of an immense number of immigrants, which affected Sidewalk Lab’s decision to go with Toronto after searching all over the world. Schmidt believed that “technology is powered by immigrants,” and Doctoroff exclaimed that “out of the entire world, the single place that we thought was the best was Toronto.”
Planning for the Future
The city planners left Sidewalk Labs no time to catch its breath; it requested proposals for the waterfront site to be delivered in six weeks’ time. Somehow, the organization rose to the occasion and produced a hundred-page-long set of plans detailing a new vision of the neighborhood. It was radically different from previous implementations in that it was literally from the ground up. So far, implementing AI and IoT in cities such as New York or Boston has largely been limited to sensor-equipped stoplights or mobile apps for citizens to report potholes.
But Sidewalk Labs’ plans integrated sensors and Wi-Fi into the very fabric of its concept. There were plans for smart garbage receptacles that separated trash from recyclables, weather sensors that could trigger the sidewalks to heat up in the event of snowfall, apps to reserve some seats by the waterfront, and traffic lights that adjusted according to both foot and vehicle traffic. Above all else, the foundation to incorporate future technologies, like self-driving cars, was all laid out in the plans.
After the company landed the contract, Trudeau engaged in a news conference to address local citizens’ concerns: “We know the world is changing, and the choice we have is either resist it and be frightened by it, or to say, we can step up, together, and shape it.”
A Divisive Decision
Trudeau’s declaration did little to allay the critics’ fears. Chief among them were the questions of who would own the data being produced by the city, who would control it, and what laws would apply to it. Proponents of Sidewalk Labs’ plans believe this is a great way to secure Toronto’s spot as a leading innovator in the future, or at the very least, help improve its defunct districts. On the other hand, those who disagree with it argue that while it may offer short-term solutions, it could backfire in the long-run.
Anthony Townsend is an urban planner and author of “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.” He’s a staunch supporter of careful “digital master planning” — basically the idea that cities should meticulously examine the role that technology can play in their environments. He’s a fan of the fact that Sidewalk Labs is striving to incorporate Toronto’s vision of the future into its plans for the neighborhood, now dubbed Quayside.
But he’s also worried for a different reason other than data: that the idea may not be ambitious enough; the plans have plenty of existing technologies but may leave no room for future ones. “I look at the bar that Google and Alphabet have set for innovation, I look at what was proposed for Toronto, and I think, where are the moonshots?”
Who Controls the City? Who Controls the Data?
So far, no other smart city development has been this ambitious about making its data infrastructure the heart and mind of the area. And that’s where most of the fears and criticisms come from. Specifically, most detractors are focused on exactly where the lines will be drawn around this data. It doesn’t help that the plans that Sidewalk Labs submitted are mostly undisclosed, leaving a vague, gray area that can only be filled with debate right now.
Bianca Wylie, co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, elaborates: “Blurring the line between what is the public sector and what is the private sector is the thematic concern here. We’re talking about a lot of things that are municipal-service-delivery-related. Infrastructure—I keep hearing the word ‘infrastructure.’ What are we talking about? What kinds of products and services are we talking about? And we’re in this situation where we’re making policy on the fly with a vendor.”
Doubters argue that handing over too much control to a private company would definitely be the wrong move. Besides this, while Google may be a master at optimizing and utilizing data from the online world, cities are a completely different animal. Dissenters believe the developers behind this project think that algorithms and data are the answer to every problem, and that this couldn’t be further from the truth. To counter this argument, supporters say that there is already an immense amount of unorganized data being generated every day. So why not tap into its potential?
The precedent set by this smart city project will have a large impact on how future endeavors handle themselves. And it seems like whether or not Toronto’s citizens agree with it, all plans are green-lit to make it happen. It will be interesting and insightful to see how this plays out, and even more fascinating to learn how a local’s life is affected by residing in this area of Toronto.
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