One of the lesser-known casualties of COVID-19 has been a new, large-scale urban development in Toronto, led by Google sibling company Sidewalk Labs. Several years in the making, the “Google City”—as it was sometimes dubbed in the media—ultimately came to a halt because of the ongoing recession, but was stymied for its entire lifespan by its public perception as what some activists labeled an “800-acre surveillance state.” While little-talked about, the failure of this project is indeed sad news—as urban experimentation is needed today more than ever.
The project had an upbeat start. At its launch, CEO Dan Doctoroff explained that the experimental neighborhood could address “costs of living . . . congestion . . . [and] climate change.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the audience that “I have no doubt Quayside will become a model for cities around the world.” The plan was to transform Toronto’s Quayside waterfront into an 800-acre experiment for high-tech, smart cities. Robots would serve as taxis and trash collectors, apartments would be made from affordable, renewable materials, and an array of sensors would optimize everything from the timing of traffic lights to the configuration of public space.
The subsequent years were not a smooth ride. The COVID-19 recession was the last straw for a project that had been challenged every day since the first press conference, particularly on issues of privacy and data ownership. I sat on the advisory committee for the Quayside development and witnessed both its promise and its uncertainty. Although the public concerns about the project have been absolutely legitimate, I believe the end of the Quayside project is ultimately a loss not only for Sidewalk Labs, but also for Toronto, and for the greater cause of urban innovation.
Ever since humans started living together in large numbers, the city has been a critical site for social experimentation. Medieval Italian city-states, such as Venice and Genoa, were critical experiments in the history of democracy, while the phalenstѐres proposed in nineteenth-century France by the philosopher Charles Fourier brought forward the then-radical ideas of minimum wages and women’s rights. In the 1980s, a “special economic zone” in Shenzhen, China, acted as a catalyst for a historic economic boom. The success of Shenzhen, where a liberalized economy attracted foreign investment and spurred economic growth, helped reformers justify nationwide changes. “Without Shenzhen,” according to US economist Paul Romer, “reform in China might have stalled before it had a chance to take hold.”
Urban innovation is particularly necessary today, as the Internet of Things is spearheading a new wave of experimentation. We are entering the era of smart cities, in which information and communication technologies capture extraordinary amounts of data and deploy their findings, often in real-time, to transform economic and administrative practices. An array of startups that blend the physical and digital, what Richard Florida calls “urbantech” companies, are at the leading edge of the smart city movement. Facial recognition, cell phone tracking, and self-driving cars raise tremendous ethical issues. We must then try out a variety of different approaches, from the public and private sectors, on how to best incorporate these technological advancements into our lives and test out their pros and cons. We could say that we are in a similar condition to the one we experienced in the early 2000s, when experimentation with a first wave of digital innovations led to the selection of champions that have now changed our lives—including many, like Google, who are now attempting to transition into urbantech.
There is, however, one crucial difference between this moment and the earlier phase of the digital revolution. How do we test digital innovation in physical space? The failure of an app is one matter, but the collapse of an urban experiment is a different story. Even apparently innocuous technologies can have unexpected consequences. Since 2017 in China, several “unicorn” (valued above 1 billion dollars) startups tried to push the vision of renting a dockless bike through a mobile app. As their plan struggled to get in gear, massive “bike cemeteries” piled up in vacant lots across the country. Such failures are all but inevitable. As in an evolutionary system, a multiplicity of innovations and mutations in urban technologies helps to select the winners of tomorrow and counteract the risk that any one idea might fail.
Interestingly, in the case of Toronto, activists were less concerned about the risks of failure than the risks of success; they feared that Sidewalk could exploit their land, their economy, and their privacy. Author and #BlockSidewalk activist Cory Doctorow wrote “as a dystopian science fiction writer . . . it is obviously a terrible idea to let vast, opaque multinational corporations privatize huge swathes of our city.” As Sidewalk struggled to maintain transparency and trust, the community’s concerns compounded.
However, the end of the Toronto project should be blamed on neither the risks nor the critics of Sidewalk’s plans. Both risks and critics are invariable, necessary parts of experimentation. What Sidewalk lacked was a robust platform for civic discussion, one that would have allowed the city to manage its risks and build trust with its citizens. The back-and-forth between the activists and the company was a confrontation, not a dialogue, and this posturing decimated political consensus by default. True city-making is the art of bringing different voices together. The physical space, what the ancient Romans called the urbs, only results from the cooperation of its people, or civitas. In an open forum, participants can correct problems as they occur.
Improving platforms for community involvement is a formidable challenge, yet another example of why we need to continue creating new experiments for urban innovation. The more different attempts we make, the more likely it will be that we can strike a healthy balance in urban life. It is doubtless that some efforts will do better than others, which is why it is so important to commit to a broad range of projects. Companies, governments, and communities the world over should follow this example, leaving no stone unturned. We need more Google cities, more Linux cities, more cities remade by startups that no one has heard of yet or, crucially, by communities of citizens ready to take action. Some will and should fail, and that is why we need as many ideas as we can imagine for our common urban future.
Carlo Ratti carries out research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Senseable City Laboratory, investigating the intersection of technology and the built environment. He is the co-author with Antoine Picon of the forthcoming Atlas for the Senseable City.