Google’s city

Opinion by Anna-Sofia Lesiv
Nov. 1, 2017, 1:00 a.m.

After blocking the construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway – which would have uprooted neighborhood blocks and erased Washington Square Park from the map – Jane Jacobs packed her New York memories and moved to Toronto.

She was off-put by the Roman-inspired grandeur of constructions like New York’s Lincoln Center, which dedicated immense amounts of space for a sole purpose and stood entirely empty and lifeless when not in use. Toronto, modestly sized and culturally rich, had few such centrally planned pretensions. Its neighborhoods emerged organically, communities formed through the spontaneous mixing of diverse people and businesses that shared the same local blocks. The Toronto of the late ’60s and ’70s was a Jacobsian city.

Since then, Toronto has changed. Global demand for housing grew, housing prices soared, foreign money fled in, neighborhoods gentrified and condominium towers stacking 200-square-foot closets into the sky became the new city slums.

For years, the city has been desperate to build more units and house the unceasing waves of migrants that flock to the shores of the most diverse city in the world.

Quayside, a 12-acre downtown stretch of undeveloped waterfront land, became a vessel for these dreams of city expansion and modernization. While Toronto city planners floated visualizations and wish lists of a futuristic glassy and grassy waterfront, others were busy visualizing their own dreams for the area. In particular, Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs had been developing plans and models for what would become the first “smart neighborhood” built entirely from scratch.

The company is Alphabet’s first foray into the municipal. Its mission is to revolutionize how cities are organized and how they provide local services. By extracting data from residents through smart technologies, the company believes it can translate the digital to the physical by accommodating services to user preferences and optimizing the way space is used.

Quayside is Sidewalk Labs’ first test ground. After submitting a 220-page bid for the project, the city of Toronto gave the company free rein to carry out its vision. The proposal is extensive and impressive, promising a nearly ubiquitous network of sensors to monitor air quality, guide traffic and even direct cars to parking spots. Smart energy grids, delivery bots and self-driving shuttles are bound to set the neighborhood just short of techno-utopia.

To be clear, the urban experiment in Toronto’s Quayside is unprecedented. Sidewalk is staunch in its ambition to revolutionize nearly every possible municipal service, from transportation to waste management. In a city like Toronto, such ambitions require lot of regulatory latitude – which so far, the city has seemed eager to give. However, the latitude that grants more creative freedom is also the latitude that offers more corporate control. In this sense, while the scope of Sidewalk’s foray into municipal services is inspiring on the one hand, on the other, it seems quite the cause for concern.

Evgeny Morozov, a fervent critic of tech-corporatism, thinks Sidewalk’s adventure in Toronto is a ruse, saying that, “what passes for the efforts to build the ‘digital grid’ might, in fact, be an attempt to privatize municipal services.”

At this point, Sidewalk Labs has asked for a virtual monopoly over public service provision in Quayside. This has the potential to guarantee Alphabet full control over a neighborhood that will become dependent solely on its products. Adding data to the mix further complicates the situation. At the end of the day, Sidewalk Labs is not a nonprofit. Optimized pricing, gauged by the copious amounts of data harvested from service usage, could become an annoying but lucrative reality. Think Uber surge pricing, but for electricity consumption and public transport.

Big data is all about optimization. It’s about learning to squeeze the maximum outcomes out of processes, whether those outcomes are profits or utility. In Toronto, Sidewalk seems to want to do both. Its proposal suggests that urban space that isn’t being used is being wasted. A Sidewalk city is meant to be dynamic and constantly operating. Quayside will be filled with “lofts,” low-cost buildings whose use can change quickly and radically to accommodate “market demand.” Effectively, this means letting the market determine whether on any given day, your bedroom will be a boutique or a bistro during peak hours.

Granted, the optics of letting a private company build an entire section of a city are not great. However, phobias over corporatist encroachment on our cities seem somewhat uncharitable if not overblown. If we recall correctly, the main proponent of dynamic, constantly buzzing cities was the city savant Jane Jacobs herself. Clearly, as Sidewalk Labs and Alphabet have recently learned, it just so happens that the Jacobsian dream isn’t too bad for the bottom line, either.

Slick sensors and astute algorithms have proven their worth in optimizing the use of space and services, but engineering authenticity can easily come off as tacky artifice. In Toronto, it’s left to be seen whether the communities that truly make a place livable can be similarly programmed into existence, or whether the only things that will be integrated in Quayside will be its smart services.


Contact Anna-Sofia Lesiv at alesiv ‘at’

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