Google wants to run cities without being elected.
Alphabet is Google’s mother company. Its subsidiaries are handling issues ranging from autonomous vehicles to intelligent homes, from artificial intelligence to biotechnology for prolonging life. This time, Alphabet has decided to plan, build and direct a city – or a part of a city. The surprise here is that a big city is happily giving Alphabet a first-class neighborhood, which the company may consider its own.
The project announced last week is a collaboration between Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary oriented towards urban technology, and Toronto. Sidewalk Labs will be reducing the coastal city line, an area called Quayside. According to reports, this initiative includes more than 0.3km² of residential space, office and commercial space, along with a central Google Canada center, in an area that will be a test for technology and urban combination.
With this district, Alphabet will be in possession of its “living urban laboratory” where it can experiment with new intelligent systems and planning techniques. It can study how these systems and techniques work in the real world and how people are affected by them. Urban Laboratories Sidewalk Labs, after the subsidiary, has been involved in the redevelopment of Hudson Yards in New York.
Toronto’s development plan.
But if Toronto’s development goes as it is planned, it will be one of the biggest examples of a project for a city with basic hi-tech services, (smart-city) in North America. A place built on the basis of automatic network technologies. Not just for Toronto and the Alphabet but for all the cities around the world, this is a great initiative. The agreements and the terms applied in this case can become a model for other cases in other cities in the world because this is a high-level project.
This model of the creation of our urban future is also a way that self-governed corporations can gain more power and control over people, countries ect.
Eric Schmidt said on the occasion of the announcement of the project: “The origin of thought for Sidewalk Labs came from Google founders, enthusiastic about the idea of what can be done if someone would give us a city and charge us with it”.
In an era of intense competition between cities for resources, many of those have focused on maintaining a steady economic growth, high income, and public-private partnerships. This has transformed city leaders who spend more and more energy on the technology sector, investment environment, and innovation.
They attract companies by offering benefits and lower taxes. They create “ecosystems of innovation”, such as programming forums, incubators or collaborative spaces, the goal of which is to attract enterprising programmers and capitalists with initiative. Digital districts, such as the one developed by Sidewalk Labs, are a version of another level of these tricks.
The city has become another platform in which Silicon Valley can build and test new technologies while delivering more benefits and increasing its impact.
It is easy for city leaders to step aside and leave the way for corporates to take control as if they are alchemists that can turn social and economic problems into progress and growth.
But cities aren’t machines that can be learned, not even their laboratories where experiments can be developed. Cities aren’t platforms with users, just as they aren’t shareholder businesses. Cities are places with real people who have the rights to refuse. For example to live with any “smart choice” that an engineer or executive decides to apply.
These partnerships can’t be a way used by city governments to give up responsibilities to citizens by handing over a city to corporates. Nobody has chosen Alphabet or Uber, or any other company with the intent to privatizing the city governance.
When Sidewalk Labs was selected for Quayside development, Eric Schmidt reacted: “Now is our turn. An enthusiastic call for them and a sinister for us.”
There is no doubt that urban laboratories can help design powerful and useful technologies. The construction of the urban future on hi-tech can also not open the way for billionaires of technological companies to fulfill their dreams for domination over cities but if this happens, then this is not the future where we would like to live.