Google plans to 'fix' Toronto by building smart city

Google has its sights set on piloting its vision for the smart city of the future in Canada’s largest urban centre. But its reasons for picking Toronto are not necessarily the ones we might first assume.

Underdeveloped waterfront ideal location to start building smart city

Toronto could be Google's first digital city. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Google has its sights set on piloting its vision for the smart city of the future in Canada's largest urban centre. But its reasons for picking Toronto are not necessarily the ones we might first assume.

Alphabet, Google's parent company, is eyeing Toronto for its foray into digital city-building. At first glance, it makes perfect sense. After all, Toronto is Canada's largest city and Canada is having a moment right now. The city has a lot going for it: it's a growing metropolis, a multicultural epicentre, and a new tech hotbed.

But to understand the real reason Google is eyeing Toronto, it's important to look at their intent and take them at their word. Google says it wants to use technology to "fix" cities. Before news of the Toronto plans leaked, the company was said to be eyeing Detroit, a city of another era, now devastated by the fallout of a crumbling auto industry.

Through that lens, the allure of Toronto as a venue for piloting a vision shifts slightly. One of the greatest appeals for Google isn't what Toronto has built, but what it hasn't. Namely, the city's under-developed industrial waterfront. Even if you've been to the city, you may not know that this part of the city even exists; with few businesses and fewer attractions, there's little to bring people to the area, despite its proximity to both the city centre and to stretches of Lake Ontario beach front. In other words, it is a 12-acre ghost town, inside of a growing, urban metropolis.

Toronto's underdeveloped waterfront could be a perfect location for Google to begin developing a smart city. (CBC)

"Toronto has all of the conditions of being an innovative city that Google would be looking for," says Christopher De Sousa, the Director of Ryerson University's School of Urban and Regional Planning, adding that this "could be the catalytic spark that the city needs to get them to act on this inactive and underdeveloped area once and for all. There has been disagreement about what to do with the area for a hundred years, whether it is residential or business-driven — a smart city would bring both employment and housing — and do it in a futuristic innovative pilot model."

The premise of Google's smart city is appealing. A city built from the ground up promises not just the convenience that comes with new technologies, but also the potential of environmental sustainability, health benefits, and even affordability of housing. The vision entails high-speed internet access and free wifi across the hub, self-driving cars, ride-sharing, and sensors throughout that automate the way people engage with their surroundings, making everything from street lights to air conditioning smarter and more efficient.

'From the internet up'

If anyone can do it, it's Google. Having started as a search engine, they quickly expanded to help us communicate, navigate and even work. For the past year, they have been brainstorming what their version of this smart city might look like. And based on how quickly they've been able to saturate the online world, once they have the get-go from a city, this futuristic hub could become a reality pretty quickly. After all, the component parts aren't revolutionary: self-driving cars are already hitting the market, communities are opting for their own Fibre networks, and Amazon has taken care of some of the heavy lifting by testing out how sensors and data can change the retail experience with fully automated cashierless stores. Google just needs to bring it all together.

The internet giant's plan is to build this new city "from the internet up." In that context, Toronto is the ideal place to begin, because it presents the perfect opportunity to showcase what the company is capable of without ruffling any feathers or raising real red flags.

"You're not displacing low-income residents; you're not displacing high density jobs," says De Sousa.

A still from a Waterfront Toronto animation that shows a developed eastern waterfront, just one vision of a revitalized waterfront. (CBC)

Should their proposal be successful, they'd have buy-in from the city, which is currently seeking bids to revitalize the waterfront area, which would suggest an openness to adapting city bylaws to help this vision come to fruition; in fact, Google's vision goes beyond brick and mortar or digital bells and whistles, with hopes of reimagining zoning to make urban living more affordable. Surely, when it comes to setting themselves up for success as they venture into city planning, they couldn't have dreamed of anything more perfect than a sprawling no-man's land, just minutes away from the downtown airport and the financial district?

But imagining this city-building venture in other Canadian cities, like Montreal, Ottawa, or Vancouver, brings to light some of its challenges, and some of the ethical issues we'll need to take into account sooner than later, should a pilot like this be successful and scale across the country with the same rapid growth that made the internet ubiquitous in the first place.

Challenges in other cities

Theoretically, if this demo comes to fruition, any of those major Canadian cities could be next. "Fixing" a city is one thing when you have under-developed urban land to work with. But as De Sousa points out, it's a whole different scenario when it entails changing the city's existing infrastructure.

"Many big Canadian cities are under such development pressure already that to try to integrate this concept into existing neighbourhoods would be difficult; you have to consider long time residents, gentrification concerns, the displacement of high density jobs and the limitations of existing infrastructure. You don't have that when you're working with an under-developed area of land." 

Bordered by water, Vancouver may not have the capacity for urban sprawl to allow for this kind of "from the internet up" approach without demolishing existing neighbourhoods. While the eventual smart hub might have a lot of appeal, bringing it to life in an already crowded urban centre would require displacing residents and local businesses. 

Vancouver doesn't have the advantage of being underdeveloped the way Toronto does. (Christer Waara/CBC)

And Montreal? Well, that's tricky for the same reason that building a city of the future in a European capital like Paris or Rome might be, where there is historic architecture built according to the plans of another era. Installing a strong fibre optic network is a lot more complicated when the city's architecture is protected by historical preservation efforts.

And that's the point: to truly build the city of the future from the ground up necessitates that we demolish the city of the past. And that requires some thoughtful considerations about the trade-offs being made, questions that conveniently won't need to be asked if Google gets lucky and wins the bid for Toronto's waterfront.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.