Death of a Smart City


Alphabet bet big in Toronto on its smart city. Toronto didn’t play along.

News that Alphabet had leaped neck deep into the smart city business lit up tech media for weeks. Sidewalk Labs’ renderings for the project — autonomous carts delivering packages and hauling away waste maneuvered in underground tunnels, while barefoot kids, butterflies, and birds cavorted in a Jetsons-meets-organic-living neighborhood at street level — flashed across the internet. Local news stations covered the project dotingly, picking up the Sidewalk Labs talking point that a network of sensors and other IT infrastructure embedded in the community would enable a new era of urban efficiency. Homes and workplaces in Quayside would “study occupants’ behavior while they’re inside them to make life easier,” said a reporter on one evening broadcast after the press event. Quayside would be “the first neighborhood of its kind,” he said, and — as if one superlative wasn’t enough — it would be “a community like none other.”

The Quayside vision was born at the peak of the tech giants’ cultural prowess. Today, the era of techno-optimism seems all but dead. The demise of the most ambitious smart city project in North America, backed by one of the most powerful corporations on the planet, came at the hands of a small group of Toronto activists — and one disaffected tech billionaire. The story of their battle is a parable, not just for the smart city movement, but also for a growing sense that the tech industry, with its promise of data-driven solutions to structural and institutional problems, won’t save us.

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