The Urban Strategies of Internet Companies, Part 2

Toronto Falls into Google’s Clutches

Oliver Pohlisch
22. de febrer 2018
The most recent protest in front of the planned Google Campus in the old transformer station in Berlin-Kreuzberg took place on 18 December 2017 under the motto "Google is not a good neighbor" (photo: Anne Huffschmid)

See also: "Does Downtown Belong to E-tailers?," the first part of Oliver Pohlisch's two-part "The Urban Strategies of Internet Companies."

The continual applicability of the neo-liberal paradigm ensures tough competition between municipalities for private capital, which is increasingly concentrated in the hands of large internet companies. While the online retailer Amazon will use the submissive courting of US cities for its favor to continue eating its way into urban areas, Google even acts as a city planner and administrator. Since 2015, Google's parent company Alphabet, and its subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs, headed by former New York City deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff, has been enticing local authorities to use digital-based instruments to pimp entire quarters. And Toronto has taken the bait: Together with Sidewalk Labs, an urban development company wants to transform the Quayside area on Lake Ontario, which is considered to be under-utilized, into a "laboratory of urban life." On an area of 12 acres – a modest part of a much larger development area – Google's Canada headquarters as well as other "intelligent" buildings providing residential, commercial and office areas are to be constructed. The concept also includes testing of self-driving vehicles on its roads and the installation of sensors and cameras to collect information on environmental conditions, noise levels and traffic density.

The digital infrastructure of Quayside in a few lines (image: Sidewalk Toronto)

If the project in Toronto were to go beyond the public consultation that has just begun, it would probably be the most advanced "smart city" project to date; what is destinece to become reality in North America and Europe. Sidewalk Labs itself avoids using the term "smart city," probably because of the increasing skepticism about development concepts associated with this term in recent years. The idea among municipal administrations, which is nourished by the paradigm of sustainability, to be able to reduce emissions, energy costs and the consumption of resources with the help of cutting-edge feed-back technologies, came up in the genesis of the "smart city" (PDF) against a reorientation of large technology groups such as Siemens, IBM, Cisco or Phillips – moving away from purely selling hardware and software and towards offering package solutions including services such as consulting, management and evaluation of  traffic management and transport systems, electricity grids or administrative processes.

The Public Realm Vision from Sidewalk Labs for Toronto's Quayside: What here is still public? (image: Sidewalk Toronto)

Alphabet and Sidewalk Labs now offer the provision and operation of infrastructures at such a low cost that municipalities under the yoke of austerity for years can hardly refuse their services. In Quayside, it may well be possible to get a demonstration of what Sidewalk Labs is actually all about, but critics point out what is skillfully disguised by ecological rhetoric and avowed intentions to promote diversity: the appropriation of urban DNA strands – i.e. the streams of all data generated in the city. The privatization of the city would thus be carried to extremes; with artificial intelligence, the power over public affairs would fall into the hands of a corporate management system that was not legitimized by any voter and that openly articulates fantasies of omnipotence. Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet, said that the idea for Sidewalk Labs came up with the idea of "all those things that could be done if only someone gave us a city and entrusted us with responsibility for it."

The Quayside, east of Toronto's downtown: Will this be the most advanced smart city project in North America and Europe? (Image: Sidewalk Toronto)

It is understandable that a technological sovereignty of the community is propagated as a counter-proposal to privately controlled utopias. The administration of Barcelona, for example, wants to consistently place open-source software, user-friendly digital services and cooperatively organized sharing platforms at the service of the common good (PDF). However, the latter is not always automatically defined by such a progressive government as the Catalan metropolis, which has embarked on a far-reaching democratization of the city's society. The government's decision on artificial intelligence quickly shows its downsides where, unlike in Barcelona, former activists from the tenants' movement do not dominate the city hall, but where an authoritarian leadership determines what is good for the citizens, and thus possibly for what form of urban "smartness" internet-based technologies are used.

Quayside is just a small section of Toronto's Eastern Waterfront, which is to be upgraded by an urban development company. (Photo: Waterfront Toronto)

Significantly, smart-city concepts are nowhere as inflationary as in China. More than 200 "smart cities" are said to already exist in the country and what they all have in common is that digital instruments not only make administrative processes more efficient or help to reduce resource consumption – under the primacy of security, they are primarily intended to standardize the behavior of the residents. The capital of the Emirate of Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula also calls itself "smart." The sensors, cameras, robots and drones operating in its public space serve both traffic guidance and law enforcement. "Smart city" can be regarded here as a synonym for a dictatorial police state.

In view of the private and state control and the steering mania associated with it, one could now heretically wish the visionaries of the "intelligent city" a return of the technological skepticism of the late 1970s. So that cities have at least a small chance to remain incomplete and contradictory, but also open, surprising and lively. So that cities have at least a small chance to remain incomplete and contradictory, but also open, surprising and vibrant. The protest against Google's and Zalando's plans in Berlin may seem modest on a global scale, but for a city that certainly has a tragic history as the scene of sinister data storage, it could perhaps be the starting point for such a revival.

This article originally appeared on German-Architects as "Toronto geht Google ins Netz." Translation by Bianca Murphy.

The first part of Oliver Pohlisch's "The Urban Strategies of Internet Companies," on urban development plans in Berlin by Google and Zalando, can be found here.

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