Call it a sign of the times: At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, there are more vendors listed as selling “smart cities” technologies than gaming products or drones.
The annual mega-gathering of the tech world—which starts in Las Vegas on Tuesday—was once a parade of TV screens, smartphones, and other personal electronics. But CES’s dazzling displays have increasingly focused on cities themselves, and the profit potential they present to technology companies. The question, as always, is where that leaves people who live in them.
From that perspective, perhaps no other project in the world has drawn as much curiosity as “Quayside,” a 12-acre slice* of Toronto waterfront in line to be developed by Sidewalk Labs, the urban tech-focused subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet. Launched in 2015 by CEO Dan Doctoroff and a number of other Michael Bloomberg affiliates, Sidewalk Labs makes much of its urbanist bonafides. The company is now primarily focused on turning the patch of city-owned land into what it calls the “world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.”
That could mean nearly anything, based on the 196-page vision document that responded to (and won, last fall) a public Request For Proposal. In working with Waterfront Toronto, the public entity that owns the land, to develop Quayside, Sidewalk Labs would reimagine urban life in five dimensions—housing, energy, mobility, social services, and shared public spaces—with an aim to “serve as a model for sustainable neighborhoods” around the world.
A self-contained thermal grid would recirculate energy from non-fossil-fuel sources to heat and cool buildings, while a food disposal system would keep garbage out of landfills. For cars and trucks, Quayside would be less hospitable: Part of the neighborhood would prohibit non-emergency vehicles entirely, while bikeshare stations, transit stops, and cycling and walking paths—kept useable through the Canadian winter with sidewalk snow melters and automated awnings—would offer “efficient alternatives to driving, all at lower cost than owning a car.” An autonomous transit shuttle would rove some streets. (Waymo, a leading developer of self-driving vehicle software, is also an Alphabet subsidiary.)
Buildings would be largely pre-fabricated using eco-friendly materials, to cut back on waste. With a “strong shell and minimalistic interior,” they could be adapted to multiple uses, morphing from residential to retail to industrial, and back again. To support such a futuristic vision, Quayside would test a novel “outcome-based” zoning code focused on limiting things like pollution and noise rather than specific land uses. If it doesn’t bother the neighbors, one might operate a whiskey distillery in the middle of an apartment complex.
With its generous tree canopy, bike lanes, and bustling storefronts, the Quayside pictured in the vision document looks like “quality urbanism as we might know it,” Wellington Reiter, an architect and executive director of Arizona State University’s University City Exchange—an initiative focused on integrating campus developments into Phoenix’s larger urban plan—told me. In many ways, it’s not an especially futuristic vision: In the 1960s, out-there architects explored the idea of implementing modular housing, at scale. Microgrid technology and snow-melting sidewalks are not new. And planners have long schemed up dense and walkable developments that mixed retail, housing, and light industry. Save for the driverless cars, perhaps, these outward-facing innovations are familiar New Urbanist fare.
This might be a way for Sidewalk Labs to emphasize how different Quayside will look from, say, Masdar or Songdo, two “smart cities” planned from the top-down in Abu Dhabi and South Korea that have fallen far short of their tech-utopian promises.
Rohit Aggarwala, who leads urban policy implementation at Sidewalk Labs, will be addressing the CES crowds in a panel this week—one of many ways Alphabet is raising its profile at the convention this year. Aggarwala resists the term “smart city” when describing his work. “It reflects this early-21st century arrogance, that all that’s gone before is obsolete,” he told me in October at CityLab Paris. He feels the term is also too closely associated with software products focused on wringing maximum efficiency out of cash-strapped city services. Smart tech or not, citizens still must decide how to use the tools that are available to them, Aggarwala said. “We are not the people of Toronto. We need them to help us figure out how to apply this.”
Yet what has drawn the most concern and curiosity with regards to Quayside is a uniquely 21st-century feature: a data-harvesting, wifi-beaming “digital layer” that would underpin each proposed facet of Quayside life. According to Sidewalk Labs, this would provide “a single unified source of information about what is going on”—to an astonishing level of detail—as well as a centralized platform for efficiently managing it all.
Kitchen appliances switched on too long, overflowing trash bins, and high-traffic park benches could be monitored and addressed by this digital layer. So could changes in air quality and spikes in noise. Each passing footstep and bicycle tire could be accounted for and managed. This vast ocean of data could inform urban planning, research, and new software development, including a special platform by which Quayside residents could access public services.
It’s the kind of all-seeing urban omniscience that would stir the heart of any utopia-builder. But to whom, and how, would this data be made available? And what would such an arrangement mean for any Quaysider who doesn’t wish to be monitored? In Toronto and beyond, the depth and details of the data collection have sparked public debate. At the first public forum on the project, and in a list of questions related to the project compiled by the journalist Bianca Wylie at Torontoist, privacy questions and fears have come up again and again.
It is not yet certain that Quayside will ever be built, at least not in the state currently imagined. Sidewalk Labs has committed $50 million and one year’s worth of engagement to develop a plan for execution. Either it or Waterfront Toronto could still decide to back out, though the two partners have also formed a third entity, called “Sidewalk Toronto,”devoted to bringing the lakeside property to life.
Pamela Robinson, a professor of urban planning at Ryerson University in Toronto, wonders if that blended entity could risk blurring public and private interests during the planning process. “Both sides must perceive some value in this arrangement,” she said—she’s just not sure what that value is. (I will update with a response from Sidewalk Toronto once it is available.)
For many of the attendees poring over “smart cities” sensors, cameras, cars, and kiosks at CES this week, the role of technology in urban life is obvious: It is a money maker. For Sidewalk Labs, layering technology beneath a neighborhood may also prove a savvy way of extracting new value from land—which is, to say, a new way of “developing” it.
What about for the rest of us? Quayside might offer a blueprint for more sustainable cities. It may also be a real-estate play for an immensely powerful and influential tech giant. Until more planning takes place, we may need to reserve judgment. A calendar of future meetings and forums, devoted to hammering out public priorities and private interests, is expected in the coming weeks.
Robinson sees the Quayside project as a natural evolution in the ways technology has inserted itself into urban planning, from the automobiles of the 1950s to the “smart” technologies of the early 2000s. The difference is that now—with a growing housing affordability crisis, increasingly traffic-clogged streets, and a warming climate to contend with—all the easy solutions have been exhausted.
“We need to find new ways of working,” she said. “The challenging parts are ahead.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly characterized the size, location, and ownership of the waterfront property.