According to the United Nations, 2007 marks the first time in human history that over half of the global population lives in cities. Yet remarkably, despite technological advances and radical lifestyle changes, the concept of a “city” has not changed much since the Industrial Revolution. From hour-long gridlocks and inefficient transit systems to disease-carrying hospitals and overflowing trash receptacles, modern cities struggle to effectively accommodate their multiplying inhabitants. Not to mention the negative effects that come with urbanization, including economic inequalities, increased crime rates, pollution, and increased incidence of mental health illnesses and other lifestyle-associated diseases.

In an effort to improve city services and strengthen urban connectivity, some cities have implemented data collection and artificial intelligence to develop data-driven decision-making platforms. These “Smart Cities”, which include Madrid, Tel Aviv, and Singapore, aim to provide their citizens with streamlined services. Buses are installed with GPS for real-time tracking, smartphone notifications provide up-dates on roadblocks, and sensor-enabled trash bins allow waste-management officials to efficiently monitor waste levels. Nevertheless, the implementation of people-centric initiatives, such as surveillance on citizen’s consumer and lifestyle habits or camera monitoring of high-risk behaviors, have been met with controversy and suspicion.

How, then, should a city be modeled to effectively improve its citizens’ lives? And on whom is the onus to provide the infra-structure for building a livable and sustainable community? In a joint effort between public and private sectors, Alphabet Inc.’s urban innovation subsidiary (and Google’s sister company) Sidewalk Labs attempts to answer these questions with Quayside, a redevelopment project to transform Toronto’s waterfront into the very epitome of a data-driven futuristic city.

Smarter living in a futuristic city

Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world and also one of the fastest-growing cities in North America, but it is this very sense of inclusivity that now exacerbates the city’s problems of affordability, mobility, and access. It is for these reasons, coupled with the city’s burgeoning tech industry, that Sidewalk Labs has chosen Toronto as its first experimental testing grounds. In collaboration with Waterfront Toronto, a non-profit organization established by three levels of Canadian government, the company seeks to redevelop a 12-acre piece of abandoned industrial land along the eastern waterfront. They then plan to expand the project to 800 acres in the area and move Google’s Canadian headquarters to the new district. By combining, in their words, “people-centered urban design with cut-ting-edge technology”, the Quayside project aims to create a futuristic tech-savvy community that will serve as a global innovation hub and a sustainable human-centric neighbourhood.

A defining feature of Quayside will be its absence of traditional vehicles in favor of publicly available autonomous vehicles on flexible shape-shifting streets. In contrast to today’s paved roads with static lanes, the streets of Quayside will be modular and incorporate data-driven reconfiguration of “lanes” with the flick of a light switch at different times of day. Footpaths and road are seamlessly merged, and pavement blocks can be reorganized into performance spaces or event venues. Given how a typical North American city dedicates 30-40% of its land to parking and the separation of roadways, Sidewalk Labs hopes to reclaim public space for pedestrians and cyclists by redefining our understanding of city streets.

In fact, the very notion of urban design will be re-imagined in Quayside, as technology will feature heavily in enhancing efficiency of city services. Conceptual plans of the neighbor-hood feature energy-efficient low-rise buildings, equipped with sensors to track pollution levels and weather-sensitive retractable awnings. Heated paths will melt snow while simultaneously measuring traffic levels. Robots are in charge of trash collection and package deliveries, which will take place in underground tunnels alongside easily accessible city wires and pipes that purportedly eliminate the need to dig up streets. Nothing escapes surveillance-cameras will monitor people’s grocery-shopping habits, visits to the clinic during flu season, and weekend activities at the park, among others. The company will purportedly use these data to understand its residents’ behaviours and continually improve the neighbourhood in real-time: for example, produce in high demand will be placed in easily accessible aisles, while popular clinics may be given more resources. Indeed, this incorporation of data and technology into optimizing city services is what Sidewalk Labs believes to be the future of urban life.

Humans and technology, the successful modern city?

By enabling smarter living, streamlining daily activities, and improving the quality of life among its residents, this design of a futuristic city ultimately aims to fulfill the functions of a city –or at least what its creators believe it to be. According to Dan Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, “the object of a city should be to grow –and that is grow the number of residents, grow the number of jobs, grow the number of visitors.” This growth can then be reinvested into improving quality of life, affordability, and other social services, thus creating a positive feedback loop in what Doctoroff calls the virtuous cycle of the successful city.

Nevertheless, Quayside will likely face the same challenge as every other global city: economic inequality. Sidewalk Labs claims it will create affordable housing, but they will have to find a robust and sustainable method of subsidizing low-income families while financing the city’s maintenance costs. Another factor to consider is the human nature to form niches based on cultural and socioeconomic standing. It is likely that Quayside’s modern design will appeal primarily to white-collar millennials once they open for settlement in five years or so –thus, even if lower income families can afford the housing, it will be important to minimize segregation between different income and racial groups.

Privacy is a major concern in the modern world of mass data surveillance and is a common criticism of Smart City initiatives. Particularly with the Quayside project, the big question is: who owns the data? Given that the project is fund-ed by Google, privacy and data protection plans are being discussed to protect residents from data commercialization, although it is still unclear how this will be implemented and enforced. Yet in some countries, citizens already willingly allow the government full access to personal data, as in the case of Taiwan’s centralized healthcare system. Meanwhile, our tolerance of personalized advertisements suggest that commercialization of personal data is acceptable to some extent. Thus, as technology becomes increasingly incorporated into city planning, it will be important to establish communication between residents and urban planners to determine what the city needs.

A brave new world

The Quayside project is still very much in the planning stage, but already it’s not been without controversy. Over the past year, Sidewalk Labs has held public roundtables and open talks in an attempt to involve the Toronto community in their planning process, yet rumors of organizational shake-ups and heavy backlash by prominent Torontonians suggest their path may not be so smooth. Bar-ring any hiccups, the company hopes to submit their master plans to the board of Waterfront Toronto for approval by early 2019. Nevertheless, it is still unclear how Sidewalk’s new tech toys can solve the social and economic crises that Toronto currently faces –if anything, the company needs to work with the government to incorporate policy and even cultural changes into their smart neighbourhood. In the meantime, given the unique collaboration of public and private sectors, it will be interesting to watch whether this project will unveil the bright future of urban living, or turn into an Orwellian dystopia where monolithic corporations decide how we live.

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Pailin Chiaranunt

Pailin is a PhD student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. She works in Dr. Arthur Mortha's laboratory on creating a high-dimensional map of host-microbiome interactions in the intestine. In her spare time, Pailin enjoys traveling, reading philosophy, and dabbling in martial arts and languages.

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