Is Alphabet Building The City Of The Future?

Harry Coulter | 16 Nov 2017

Alphabet and Sidewalk Labs creating a city of the future Something that is becoming increasingly obvious, in various sectors and in several different ways, is that the digital and physical worlds are increasingly enmeshed. Forward thinkers are looking towards a world where everything in urban areas is connected and cities will use technology to manage energy usage, sustainability, affordability, transportation and other modern concerns.

The miracle of full connectivity is already seen in Stockholm, which has become a buzzing hive of innovation thanks, in large part, to the fibre infrastructure that the Swedes had the foresight to install all over their country decades ago. Now other urban studies in such technological infrastructure are emerging, and one of the biggest is the newly-announced Sidewalk Toronto.

New Downtown Toronto Development

Waterfront Toronto, an organisation formed and dedicated to revitalising the city’s waterfront, issued an open call for a partner to contribute to the rejuvenation of an 800-acre Downtown area, situated on Lake Ontario’s edge. Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, responded and was awarded the project.

Sidewalk Labs is specifically focused on urban technology, and for the Sidewalk Toronto project, the company will be redeveloping the Quayside waterfront district. Reports say that there will be office, residential and commercial space, all linked thanks to fibre connectivity.

The coverage within the initiative will mean it will be easier than ever for people to play their favourite casino games on their mobile phones, stream video clips, chat online and complete many other digital tasks, and all neighbourhoods will be completely connected. Digital technology and urban design are intended to come together in Sidewalk Toronto, tackling traffic congestion, affordable housing and other problems that are currently plaguing the city.

The Other Side of Sidewalk Toronto

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has championed creativity in tackling global issues, including in the field of technology, and has publicly endorsed the Sidewalk Toronto initiative as a good way to create jobs and consider how to solve modern urban problems. The project will, in essence, be a laboratory to see how different city planning and ideas work out in real life.

Such so-called “urban labs” are a popular idea around the world right now, and Canadian authorities are embracing the trend. In the words of Trudeau himself, “design and technology are changing the way we live”. This is very true, of course, but should the change include non-elected companies governing large areas of prime real estate, and with that governing many private citizens too?

Those who oppose Sidewalk Toronto and similar projects say that if they are setting the blueprint for the cities of the future, too much power will be in the hands of corporations who are interested in profits rather than people. In the end, do we really want to be controlled by Alphabet? What qualifies the CEOs of such entities to govern, after all? In addition to that, what will become of all the data that the companies are able to collect about you when they run the places that you live so completely?

Private corporations and governmental authorities may well be too closely linked in urban labs like Sidewalk Toronto. Policies could start to focus only on making cities bigger and more profitable, rather than ensuring that the people living in them have a good quality of life. The incredible connectivity that Alphabet can provide in a place like this is, of course, amazing and could be used to do lots of good.

As always, the key lies in striking the balance. Before the ideas of urban labs escalate any further, perhaps better policy and regulations around them need to be drawn up. Progress can never be stopped, but it’s still important for those who it will affect to have a say in how it moves.

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