Future city: Toronto to test Google's utopian vision

Grace Dean asks if Toronto really is the city of the future, or just Google’s latest guinea pig.

Grace Dean
6th November 2017
Will the cities of tomorrow be clean & green?
Toronto is already seen by many as a highly-developed city in a country famed for its diversity, openness and technological growth. Despite this, the post-industrial east downtown area, which encompasses roughly 800 acres, is one of the largest underdeveloped urban sites in North America. Because of this, Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, has chosen the location as a guinea pig for its new project, Sidewalk Toronto.

Sidewalks Labs is rolling out the project in the 12-acre Quayside district with $50m (£37m) for initial planning and testing and, if successful, will then expand it across the rest of waterfront area.

Sidewalk Toronto will be a digital city utilising a range of smart technologies including ultramodern wifi functions, sustainable energy (featuring a thermal grid with on-site generation), an integrative technology and healthcare system, and household monitoring of pollution and noise levels. Smart technology will be used to even control rain and sunshine levels through weather mitigation technology, and monitor park benches and overflowing dustbins.

To create a truly sustainable city, Sidewalk Labs is focusing on implementing technologies which bring social, economic and environmental benefits.

The micro-city, which plans to restrict private vehicle access, will also boast an impressive smart traffic management system. Current proposals include heated bike paths, a light-rail line, adaptive traffic lights, and self-driving taxis and buses controlled by apps. A network of underground tunnels will be used for freight delivery and waste removal services.

Sidewalk Toronto follows a global movement in which urban planners are increasingly turning to technology companies to find innovative solutions to problems caused by urban over-population and pollution.

To create a truly sustainable city, Sidewalk Labs is focusing on implementing technologies which bring social, economic and environmental benefits, which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hopes will lead to “smarter, greener, more inclusive cities - which we hope to see scale across Toronto's eastern waterfront and eventually in other parts of Canada and around the world."

Alongside a fifth of the housing on the site being available to low-income residents, Sidewalk Toronto will additionally be home to Google’s Canadian headquarters.

Whilst the project is being celebrated by many, some people remain sceptical.

In the US there is a growing political outcry against smart technology due to privacy concerns. Sidewalk Toronto will indeed rely on substantial data collection to operate the technology from an immense system of sensors. From monitoring where people go grocery shopping to observing anti-social behaviour in public spaces, Big Brother will be watching over the residents at all times.

Furthermore, the success of the project depends on existing legislation being waived, including current building, transport and energy regulations.

Urban planning expert Robert Puentes said, "Cities are trying everything they can to boost their economies and build infrastructure, but they have to realise that companies are not doing it for altruistic reasons - they are interested in generating profit for their shareholders.”

The question is ultimately whether Sidewalk Labs has purely philanthropic reasons for wanting to develop such a city, or whether the potential of drawing in mass profits is instead the ultimate motivation for using Toronto as a guinea pig. Justin Trudeau has to ask himself whether the privacy of his countrymen is worth risking solely to reinforce Canada’s place on the world’s technology map.

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AUTHOR: Grace Dean
Editor-in-Chief of the Courier 2019/20, News Editor 2018/19, writer since 2016 and German & Business graduate. I've written for all of our sections, but particularly enjoy writing breaking news and data-based investigative pieces. Best known in the office for making tea and blasting out James Blunt. Twitter: @graceldean

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