Alphabet, Google, and Sidewalk Labs Start Their City-Building Venture in Toronto
Google has built an online empire by measuring everything. Clicks. GPS coordinates. Visits. Traffic. The company’s resource is bits of info on you, which it mines, packages, repackages, repackages again, and then uses to sell you stuff. Now it’s taking that data-driven world-building power to the real world. Google is building a city.
Tuesday afternoon, public officials gathered in Toronto to announce that Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary under the Alphabet umbrella that also houses Google, will pilot the redevelopment of 12 acres of southeastern waterfront. Today the area hosts a few industrial buildings and some parking lots. In just a few years, it will be a techified community going by the name of Quayside. Sidewalk Labs has already devoted $50 million to the project, and Google will move its Toronto headquarters to the neighborhood. Once the company has proven out its concept, it plans to expand its redevelopment to the entire 800-acre waterfront area.
This will be a fully Google-fied neighborhood, built from scratch, with a touch of Canadian flavor. (Maple-fried bacon? Poutine? Unfailing bilingual politeness?) Sidewalk Labs promises to embed all sorts of sensors everywhere possible, sucking up a constant stream of information about traffic flow, noise levels, air quality, energy usage, travel patterns, and waste output. Cameras will help the company nail down the more intangible: Are people enjoying this public furniture arrangement in that green space? Are residents using the popup clinic when flu season strikes? Is that corner the optimal spot for a grocery store? Are its shopper locals or people coming in from outside the neighborhood?
In this distinctly “data is deity” Silicon Valley way, Alphabet joins the grand tradition of master-planned cities, places built from near-nothing with big social goals in mind. Historically, these have not worked out. Walt Disney’s Experimental Planned Community of Tomorrow—Epcot—died with its creator, transformed into a play park rather than viable community. South Korea’s Songdo won’t be finished until 2020, but the “smart city” has already fallen well short of its business and residential goals. The Brazilian capital of Brasilia is largely the work of one architect, Oscar Niemeyer, and though it’s praised for its beauty and scale it doesn’t quite function as a place. These efforts flop because they never feel quite human. They can’t shake the sense that they’ve been engineered, not grown. “The problem is that it’s not a city. It’s that simple,” the urban scholar Richard Burdett, an urban planning expert and sociologist, told the BBC about Brasilia. “The issue is not whether it’s a good city or a bad city. It’s just not a city. It doesn’t have the ingredients of a city: messy streets, people living above shops, and offices nearby.”
Sidewalk Labs seems well aware of the foibles of technologists building cities, the arrogant optimism that comes with seeing a place and deciding you can do it much better by razing and remaking. The company insists: This redevelopment will be extremely thoughtful. “This is not some random activity from our perspective,” Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt said Tuesday. “This is the culmination, from our side, of almost 10 years of thinking about how technology can improve people’s lives.”
That long gestating vision verges on the fantastical, with an tinge of Minority Report dystopia. The waterfront redevelopment proposal outlines a community where everybody has their own account, “a highly secure, personalized portal through which each resident accesses public services and the public sector.” Use your account to tell everyone in the building to quiet down, to get into your gym, or to give the plumber access to your apartment while you’re at work.
A mapping application will “record the location of all parts of the public realm in real time”—we’re talking roads, buildings, lawn furniture, and drones. Construction will prioritize walkers and bikers, not cars, though shared “taxibots” and “vanbots” will roam the hood. (The company will work with sister company Waymo to iron out those self-driving details.) It will test a new housing concept called Loft, packed with flexible spaces to be used for whatever the community needs. It will experiment with building materials like plastic, prefabricated modules, and timber in the place of steel. And yes, Sidewalk Labs says it’s working on a comprehensive privacy plan.
The company will then crunch the numbers. Sidewalk Labs’ data scientists will analyze the firehose of data to figure out what’s working and what’s not. It says it will use sophisticated modeling techniques to simulate “what-if scenarios” and determine better courses of action. No one’s using that park bench, but what if we moved it to a sunnier corner of the park? “Sidewalk expects that many residents, in general, will be attracted by the idea of living in a place that will continuously improve,” the company writes in its project proposal.
That only works if Quayside improves with its human residents in mind. The good news is that Sidewalk Labs’ approach—fast, iterative, and based on observed facts—should take its cues from people, not lofty design principles. In fact, this is academic work that is badly needed: Despite decades of the scholarly research into how cities work, scientists still struggle through gaps in data. Governments mostly collect info about how pedestrians use sidewalks and cyclists use bicycle infrastructure by hand, and then only periodically. Sidewalk Labs could help agencies everywhere crack a few codes.
But this section of Toronto will be a tiny city, not a private company, so Sidewalk Labs faces a particular challenge: building a place that works for all. Alphabet is very good at sucking in personal information and repackaging it to sell stuff. But the stuff, in this case, includes baseline city functions, like garbage collection, safe streets, efficient public transit. “I think the company needs to show that it can provide city services that are not restricted to white, male millennials,” says Sarah Kaufman, who studies transportation and technology at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation. “That means serving the elderly, the disabled, the poor—all populations that cities serve and private companies do not.”
Sidewalk Labs insists it wants to do this. It says it will spend a year hammering out the details of the community with local policymakers, city leaders, academics, and activists. When a local reporter asked CEO Dan Doctoroff about his company’s appetite for integration with the wider Toronto community, he called it “insatiable.” The frictionless tech city, the one that data could build, wants to work for everyone. But feeling like a neighborhood will be the real struggle.
UPDATE 3:05 PM ET 10/19/17: This story’s headline has been updated to clarify the relationship between Alphabet and Sidewalk Labs.