Google to build North America’s largest smart city

Sidewalk Lab Toronto

It’s official! Google’s Sidewalk Lab and Waterfront Toronto have agreed to carve down the Quayside area in Canada’s largest city as the “test bed” for what many has called the “city of the future.”

Some call it a bold experiment. Others are skeptical of allowing algorithm creators to take control of lives of city dwellers. Still others are looking forward to witnessing a fair and fine specimen of the “world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.”

There is perhaps no other project labeled as “smart city” which drools the eyes of spectators and draws so much curiosity and attention as the Quayside Project that will be built along the Toronto waterfront in Canada. 

What makes the Canadians and the world over to get more a bit inquisitive to this Utopian urban innovation project is that it is initiated by a celebrity high-tech corporation, Sidewalk Labs, a division of Alphabet, Inc., which is Google’s parent company.

Public-private partnership

Waterfront Toronto inked a deal with Sidewalk Labs to develop the 750 acre site, of which the latter initially committed US$50 million to jump-start the process.

Using data-driven technology to improve urban lifestyle, the Quayside Project re-imagines urban life in five dimensions, to wit: mobility, energy, housing, social services and shared public spaces.

Should the project get completed, it would feature at least 3.3 million square feet of residential, commercial and office space. A new headquarter for Google Canada is likewise expected to pop out in the area.

In what was acclaimed as one of the most celebrated public-private partnerships involving the government and the tech industry, the Quayside Project would embody North America’s largest smart city, an urban hub wrapped around information technology and run by big data – traffic, air quality, noise, waste management and energy.

Reimagining the city of the future

Wondering what the Google city looks like?

The buildings are modular, prefabricated using eco-friendly materials, with a strong shell and minimalist interior adaptable to multiple uses. The neighborhood will be powered by non-fossil fuels through a thermal grid technology that allows re-circulation of energy within the area.

Toronto Waterfront Google city

Driverless shuttles will rove around the streets. Garbage robots will be deployed to collect and dispose garbage.

Cycling and walking paths will remain walkable even during winter with sidewalk snow melters and automated awnings.

But the main highlight of this urban innovation project is the integration of a digital layer, one equipped with data-harvesting and Wi-Fi beaming mechanism that would provide a unified single source of information about what is happening around the neighborhood.

This technology can monitor some minute details that concern the daily routines in the city. Overflowing trash bins, excessive energy usage, traffic noise, air quality and even high traffic park benches. Sensors and cameras linked to AI-powered technology will be placed in strategic points, e.g., intersections, to monitor weather, air, noise, energy and traffic.

Issues of privacy and inclusion

The Canadian government and Sidewalk Labs are all praises to the futuristic vision Quayside Project has to offer.

“We believe that by … leveraging technology and combining it with really smart, people-centric urban planning, we could have really dramatic impacts on quality of life,” said Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff.

The developer even promised to tame the nasty weather off Lake Ontario.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada envisaged that the project will provide “technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive” communities.

But expect intense community conversation as it is met with criticisms as well. The Quayside Project sparked public debate concerning two important issues: privacy and inclusion.

John Lorinc, an expert in urban affairs, commented that the plan in Quayside is a “built-form version of Facebook” referring to Google’s data collection and data use.

The fear stems from the fact that a likely scenario of a large area being controlled by private corporations that have dominance and monopoly over an entire neighborhood for purposes of “urban integrated mega-projects” can happen in the Quayside’s case as that happened in some Asian cities such as Manila, Singapore and Hanoi.

Critics claim that a privatized planning of the city is like turning over urban development to corporations arguing that urban planning is first and foremost a public function.

Another thorny issue that beleaguers the project is inclusiveness. Once done, will it be a welcoming home for everybody irrespective of socio-economic conditions of the residents? Will it provide adequate and representative access to low-income residents of Toronto?

In conjunction with this, how much of their privacy are residents willing to give up to enjoy the amenities in both the residences and public spaces?

Despite criticisms from skeptics, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are optimistic of the future of the Quayside.

Here is a glimpse of the Quayside Project at Toronto Canada:

Will the marriage of data and urbanism in the Quayside prosper in the years to come?

The world watches over.


Source: Citylab, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times



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