Integrating the latest technology in the world of smart cities into our urban spaces is already happening. Street lights, traffic light systems and various connected sensors in sewer systems are already a reality in some places, albeit it is still just a beginning. The challenge of upgrading existing urban spaces is considerable and will take many years. Unless smart city integration is done along with general upgrade work, it is generally prohibitively expensive on a major scale.
But in one corner of Toronto in Canada, a new neighbourhood to be built from the bottom up as part of a dockside regeneration project, a partnership between Google-owner Alphabet, the city administration and a charity set up by the country’s government, will see the latest smart city technology in the world ‘baked in’ from the outset.
The project’s ambition is to use the latest technology in the world to create an urban utopia. If a child was to run onto a road, sensors will detect it and throw up an illuminated, temporary pedestrian crossing around the youngster, alerting vehicles. Rubbish will be taken directly from homes and sorted for recycling automatically by a chute and tunnel system and buildings will extend canopies over the pavements when it starts raining and heat sensors melt snow on cycle lanes, to name just a few of the upgrades envisioned.
The positive outlook is that Toronto’s ‘Google neighbourhood’, or Sidewalks Toronto as it is officially named, will become the most convenient 800 acres in which to live in the world. And by some distance. However, the flip side of the coin is privacy concerns around the amount of data Sidewalks Toronto would collect on those living there or simply passing through. Google executives who have worked on the project have even resigned over their own concerns.
Jim Balsillie, the Canadian former head of smartphone maker BlackBerry and a Toronto resident gave a damning opinion to the city’s Globe and Mail newspaper, commenting:
“Sidewalk Toronto is not a smart city. It is a colonising experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.”
It’s safe to say he is not in favour of the development. The balance between the convenience that the kind of smart city technology the Alphabet plans to build into Sidewalks Toronto and privacy concerns is a debate that will and should be a noisy one over the coming years.