May 18, 2019


It was meant to be a vision of how we will all live in future — a smart city built from the internet up — offering citizens the chance to experience the very latest technology.

That would include autonomous cars, innovative ways to collect rubbish and shared spaces for communities to come together in new ways.

Sidewalk Labs, a sister company to Google, had acquired disused land in Toronto, Canada for this bold urban experiment, which it hoped would become a model for other cities around the world.

The fact that it would be collecting a lot of data from sensors placed all around the harbourside development unsettled some.

Now many are asking whether a private firm should take charge of urban improvement at all.

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“We have not been talking about the fact that it is normalising massive data collection or even asking whether anyone wants this thing at all. No-one here has asked for a sensor-laden neighbourhood,” she said.

“Our waterfront must be developed for the benefit of the citizens of Toronto, not the shareholders of a Google-affiliate.”

Related: Alphabet’s smart neighborhood could have shape-shifting ‘superblocks.’

Too many cities are built around cars rather than people. Sidewalk Labs, an offshoot of Google’s parent company Alphabet, wants its smart neighborhood in Toronto to be different. It’s considering a so-called superblock concept, modeled after Barcelona’s, that bundles smaller streets together and limits vehicles to the perimeter. The smaller lanes inside each superblock would then become safer, quieter spaces for pedestrians and cyclists. Sidewalk Labs wants to go a step further, though, with real-time traffic monitoring and movable street furniture. These would allow the company to create smart, dynamic superblocks that subtly change with the time of day and needs of its residents.

So it’s the spying and data collection of 1984 meets the urban “tuning” of the 1998 film Dark City. That’s not creepy at all.

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