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Modern urban centers are evolving more rapidly than ever into “smart cities.” (See our recently published article on the top 10 smart cities). With this evolution has come wild success in China, where smart city creation is occurring at an unprecedented rate. This popularization calls into question why Google’s urban planning sector previously failed to cultivate a smart city from the ground up.
Google’s smart city was a project pursued by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., in conjunction with Waterfront Toronto. The Google Smart City project was called “Quayside,” and had been arranged to be developed in Toronto, Canada, along the city’s Eastern Waterfront.
The Quayside project was envisioned as a smart city that would make extensive use of technology and data to improve urban living. Some of the plans publicly announced by Sidewalk Labs for the Quayside Project that shone a glimmer of hope were:
Along with establishing a new Canadian HQ for Google, this ambitious project aimed to tackle issues such as housing affordability, transportation, sustainability, and community engagement. The plans included constructing buildings made of timber, deploying self-driving vehicles, establishing a thermal grid for heating and cooling, and implementing a data-driven approach to managing urban infrastructure and services.
In May 2020, Sidewalk Labs announced that it was no longer pursuing the Quayside project, citing economic uncertainties due to the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for its decision.
The Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff’s public statement regarding the project’s end demonstrated immense disappointment. However, he shared that Google and its subsidiaries have started innovative companies to address urban mobility, next-generation infrastructure, and community-based healthcare. He also stated that it propelled them to invest in startups working on everything from robotic furniture to digital electricity.
“We continue to work internally on factory-made mass timber construction that can improve housing affordability and sustainability, a digital master-planning tool that can improve quality of life outcomes and project economics, and a new approach to all-electric neighborhoods” Doctoroff explained in the statement.
COVID-19 was certainly the final straw. However, the project had actually been troubled for years with challenges surrounding privacy and cost. While there was an immense amount of press, along with claims about public excitement for the creation of this smart city within its borders, Sidewalk Labs did face a significant amount of criticism surrounding the project. The co-chief executive officer of the Canadian technology company Research In Motion (also known as Blackberry) referred to the project as “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic, and political issues.”
Some of the concerns included data privacy and surveillance, governance, financial arrangements, and the amount of control that a corporate entity would have over public spaces, which was incited by notable venture capitalist Roger McNamee as “dystopian.” The reason for projects of this type’s success in China spans from drastically different laws and regulations on data privacy as well as the ability to implement greater capital towards the development of the proposed concepts, including infrastructure and hardware. However, in the US, where data privacy is a highly contested conversation, these permissions are harder to come by.
Google’s business incentive to be a notable innovator in smart-city development is clear: the revenue generated by a city’s worth of using data from Google Fiber for broadband connection, Google Cloud for cloud computation, and other Google products would be tremendous. However, the Sidewalk Labs experiment illustrates how launching a smart city is an interdisciplinary problem. One that requires not only technical solutions but also innovations in infrastructure, urban planning, material sciences, and data governance, all in conjunction for there to be true success. And even then, it is highly questionable whether Western society would be accepting of a private company governing public space for privacy and data collection reasons.
Google failed to consider that the city of Toronto reports to 3 governments equally, meaning there is no majority shareholder to help dictate decisions. This proposed unaddressed problems in zoning, municipal issues, etc. In assessing the takeaways from this failure as future smart cities go on to be built, it is crucial to inquire essential questions from the outset, such as: What repercussions might arise from the types of technology intended for deployment? Is it necessary to establish public policies to safeguard any data gathered, utilized, or distributed through these sensors? If such policies are requisite, should the government take proactive measures on a global scale to formulate these policies, ensuring the protection of citizens’ rights? While the Google Smart City is only one instance, it is rather foundational given that privacy is a predominant concern for everyone engaged in this part of the world.
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