Innovation Nation: How smart cities may be too smart for their own good

Should Smart Cities be meticulously planned or allowed to develop organically?Becky Guthrie/National Post

Canada has a rich history of innovation, but in the next few decades, powerful technological forces will transform the global economy. Large multinational companies have jumped out to a headstart in the race to succeed, and Canada runs the risk of falling behind. At stake is nothing less than our prosperity and economic well-being. The Financial Post set out explore what is needed for businesses to flourish and grow. You can find all of our coverage here.

“I don’t think I’ve ever said anything about smart cities,” says Dan Doctoroff, chief executive of Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet Inc.’s urban innovation arm. “I really don’t like the term.”

That dislike is a little bit unfortunate, because, whether Doctoroff likes it or not, he happens to be in charge of Canada’s most high-profile smart city project: “Google’s smart city” — as it is called in one news story after another — on the Toronto waterfront.

Just how smart the Sidewalk Toronto project will ultimately become is still a bit hazy. It might be a technology-infused, data-driven, futuristic neighbourhood “reimagining cities from the internet up” as the company was once fond of saying. Or, critics say, it could turn into a company town that subverts the democratic will of governments and sets bad precedents for data collection, privacy and digital surveillance.

At this point, Sidewalk Toronto is largely open to interpretation, which is precisely what makes it such a perfect example of a smart city project: it’s big, ambitious, technology-driven and, most importantly, still an idea, a vision, a proposal that hasn’t been realized yet.

Even something as seemingly straightforward as planning to use self-driving cars causes confusion. Will the project close all the streets in the neighbourhood and only allow autonomous vehicles? That doesn’t make much sense for an area that covers only about 12 acres and can be walked from one end to the other in just 10 minutes. Instead, it might plan the streets and parking spaces in a way to accommodate self-driving cars, which is a little less groundbreaking.

Proponents also talk about “tall timber” construction, using wood in innovative ways to make new kinds of buildings, and a radically different approach to public space in the buildings. Concept drawings generally feature hexagonal paving stones, allowing for flexible streetscapes that can be changed to suit different kinds of usage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *