The tech giants Google, Apple and Amazon are very keen to be at the forefront of building and planning our future cities and China’s Alibaba has already taken its first steps. It’s a quest however, that’s been going on for a very long time and not everyone is a fan of the idea.

The human race first started to move from a nomadic existence to settlements based around agriculture some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago and that change eventually gave rise to land ownership rights and cities.

Fast forward and in 2009 Professor Ahmad Hasan Dani, one of the world’s leading archaeologists, died. However, part of his legacy work had revealed fascinating details about the ruins at Moenjodaro, the 4500-year-old city settlement north of Karachi, Pakistan. Professor Dani proclaimed it “the first planned city in the world”. He had demonstrated that its Indus Valley civilisation was one of humanity’s great foundational cultures, alongside Egypt, Mesopotamia and China.

While the idea of a ‘planned city’ might not be new, our modern era of technology has given rise to a big and urgent debate about how we can improve cities and it’s a debate that’s taken on ever more urgency as the world heads for greatly increased urban living.

Our modern-day tech giants are powering this debate, lead by Google. Google’s city of the future has been in the planning stages for some years in Toronto via its subsidiary Sidewalk Labs.

The project Waterfront (Quayside) Toronto offers a fantastic view of how a city might be planned, built and sustained but, there appears to be a few stumbling blocks along the way.

Planning for Good or Profit.

Since Google was announced to undertake the Canadian project in October 2017 as “the world’s first neighbourhood built from the internet up” it has not been all smooth sailing.

Both the Financial Times (UK) and Prospect Magazine have this month carried detailed analysis and background on why Google’s ambitions are now being questioned.

However, many of the concerns are not so much linked to how any city of the future might be built but, are more focused on how Google will use data to manage and sustain the city and possibly overtake the boundaries of local government.

It’s also come about at a time when all of the tech giants are facing increasing scrutiny over their data collection and privacy.

There’s another trick question and that’s the uncoupling of politics from city planning and management and handing that, admittedly with safeguards, to the tech giants via the collection and use of big amounts of personal data to inform everyday city-management decisions.

Plans call for almost every residents interaction with their smart city, from walking and driving to waste collection, to be monitored and collected. The use of behavioural patterns drawn from personal data has drawn comparisons to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.

However, the ability to manage and deliver services backed by real-time data might just be what we need given the many problems being faced by major urban centres, after all our current way of delivering infrastructure doesn’t always pass the ‘best practice’ test.

Let’s Talk About the Vision

We’ve established that the idea of a planned or smart city is not a new one, and we’ve had our own modest attempt with the creation of Canberra. In all fairness, and taking into account the fact that the place well and truly pre-dates the internet, Canberra’s not such a bad place.

Setting aside the politics of planning and city administration and accepting that governments will eventually sort out the data and privacy issues, what might Google’s (Sidewalk Lab) and other such smart city visions deliver us.

The plans for Waterfront (Quayside)Toronto are nothing revolutionary, there have been previous similar concepts and in China the idea is already in part a reality and spreading to other countries.

Back in the 1960’s, Walt Disney came up with a similar idea EPCOT – short for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a city of the future in Florida, but Disney died before his full vision was realised. Disney corporation may well have been the ‘Google’ of the 1960s.

Today Apple, Amazon and Google have all acquired big sites across the USA to further their ideas of just what a futuristic city might be. Bill Gates investment company has spent $80 million in Arizona to build a ‘smart city’ currently known as Belmont.

However, the Quayside Waterfront project is the biggest and might grow to cover 350 acres and eventually house 75,000 in a project that would include a variety of 20-storey high-rise buildings, although current plans are more modest and include 17,000 housing-units with hopes of creating 4,000 jobs.

Quayside would be filled with ‘Lego like’ buildings that could be moved to meet shifting demand for on area to another, almost overnight. Buildings would be multi-purpose and public space would be adaptable.

The smart city would be sustained by an ingenious network of hidden wiring, both physical and virtual with streams of data collected and used to benefit every resident, including ways to manage at times Toronto’s extreme weather.

The idea on a much smaller and limited scale is demonstrated by Waze, which is a Google GPS app downloaded 100m times and used in partnership with 70 US cities to share real-time traffic and accident data, while Uber and Lyft are in a battle to provide shared transit solutions to US cities.

Sidewalk have described Quayside as a global testbed for urban innovation and a model for the world however, much of the hype associated with the Toronto project is already happening, in one city in China.

China’s Alibaba

Hangzhou is a city of 10-million, southwest of Shanghai and is home to Alibaba (China’s Amazon accounting for 80% of on-lie sales in China). With local city authorities onside Alibaba have launched a ‘smarter’ city innovation called City Brain.

City Brain collects information like traffic movement, public transit information, video feeds and social media chatter with the aim of developing a neural network to help manage Hangzhou traffic. Measured by the city authorities support, the idea has been a ‘success’ moving traffic faster and traffic problems being spotted earlier.

However, Alibaba is also involved in other platforms designed to deliver a social credit score and like some of the ‘big-brother’ notions often associated with Singapore, the possible overlap with City Brain, now also exported to Kuala Lumpur does for some people raise questions of personal freedom.

Worth the Cost or Not?

Some two years after the plans for Toronto were announced there are questions being asked about the benefits and possible downsides of a data driven city.

Urban living does need a fix and Google’s vision might be spot on or not in terms of urban planning, quality housing, affordability, equity and environmental benefits.

Sidewalk’s chief describes his mission as creating the world’s first 21st Century urban district where residents may get the satisfaction of a pleasant and profitable social relationship on a scale almost impossible to imagine before, with a huge increase in the efficiency of services and housing flexibility and helping to deliver a great quality of life.

Others however, suggest that the tech giants should not wield such influence and that Google’s plans are currently just pie-in-the-sky notions and that we risk over-engineering our cities with data creating an artificial environment cut-off from nature.

As Sidewalk’s chief suggested ‘articulating the future can be a hard thing to do’ however, after 4500 years of attempts perhaps the idea, and importantly the need for a true ‘smart-city’ is now upon us.