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Google’s hi-tech Toronto neighbourhood

Google’s hi-tech Toronto neighbourhood

The question of what the cities of the future will look like is one of the most urgent facing human society. For the first time in human history more of us live in cities than the countryside, and it is estimated that up to 75% of us may live an urban lifestyle by the middle of the century.

Can our current model for cities deal with such an influx? The truth is that we do not know. The number of megacities is proliferating, and we are struggling to provide the basics of life in many parts of the world – for instance, within the last year both Cape Town and Chennai have run out of water, and more cities are likely to follow.

In response, new ideas are springing up, including floating cities and smart cities. The latest company interested in the latter is Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation arm of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which this week released its Master Innovation and Development Plan for a city-within-a-city in Toronto, Canada.

Billed as “the most innovative district in the world”, Sidewalk Toronto is an attempt to reimagine modern city living through technology to improve quality of life for residents. This is to be achieved by emphasising public WiFi systems, dedicated roads for Google’s self-driving Waymo cars, smart road systems, weather and climate mitigation technologies, and the first modern city neighbourhood built entirely of timber, among many other things.

A third-party research firm has analysed the plans and found that they could potentially create 44,000 jobs and up to US$4.3bn dollars in annual tax revenue. Sidewalk itself is expected to contribute US$1.3bn and hopes to inspire a further US$38bn of private sector investment.

While this is clearly a lot of money and could provide a significant economic boost to the city, the lasting legacy of this project may well end up being the focus on timber. The global construction trade is one of the world’s largest and most damaging carbon emitters at present, and this will only get worse in the future as we have to build more and more urban space.

By putting serious money into experimenting with mass- or glue-laminated timber alternatives and creating a large-scale supply chain to go with it, the impact of Sidewalk Toronto may be felt across the world. Modern timber construction techniques are cheap, quick, environmentally sustainable and highly fire resistant. If Sidewalk Toronto can show proof of concept on a large scale, construction might look very different in the future and we could start to mitigate a major cause of global heating.

However, the plan does not come without some drawbacks. The main issue concerns data gathering, as it always seems to be with technology companies. The whole development would be covered in sensors which measure everything from which benches are most well-used to how quickly people cross the road in different places.

Whereas the company says all of this is necessary to keep traffic, pollution and everything else at optimal levels for resident happiness, critics remain unconvinced that such an intense programme of data gathering is a good idea. Even plans to store the data in a government trust and pledges to create new storage methods which would be “the strongest governance regime for urban data in the world” have failed to convince many – and Sidewalk Labs will need to persuade local government figures if it wants to buy land at a reasonable price and secure the public infrastructure pledges it needs to make its Toronto project a success.

When viewed through the lens of data gathering, it is clear that Sidewalk Toronto has the potential to be a huge financial boon for Alphabet/Google. As mentioned previously, the question of how we arrange our cities in the future is not going to go away, and the technology giant is betting that its hi-tech cities are the future.

If the company can lay a blueprint which gets copied around the world then it is going to be in a position to make enormous piles of money. In much the same way as Google has become the de facto structure of the internet, the Sidewalk city could become the standard architecture of the cities of the future.

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