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Would you let Google run your city?

Google promised to create the neighbourhood of the future in Toronto. Then residents rebelled. Martin Moore asks…
© ELIJAH LOVKOFF / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

On 17th October 2017, Eric Schmidt joined Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, and John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, on stage in Corus Quay on the city’s waterfront. Schmidt, then executive chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), was there to announce a new partnership between Toronto, the Canadian government and Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs to redevelop a 12-acre plot called Quayside, with a view to extending it by a further 800 acres.

“We cannot wait to get started,” said Schmidt, on building what his company called the “neighbourhood of the future.” Everyone on stage seemed to assume that Toronto residents would welcome the project—and the Google money that went with it—with open arms. They were soon proved wrong.

Sidewalk Labs was aiming to create the city of tomorrow, “with connectivity designed into its very foundation.” Its 196-page proposal envisioned self-driving shuttles, modular housing, rubbish-collecting robots, data-driven public services and what it described as a “programmable public realm.” Technology would be seamlessly integrated into the physical environment: ceaseless streams of data would make the city efficient, adaptable, responsive and ecologically sustainable. The result would be the first “thinking” city, fed with information which would then be crunched by algorithms. From the outset, Sidewalk saw Quayside as a “global testbed” for urban innovation, a “replicable model for the world.” “What happens in Quayside,” the project vision said, “will not stay in Quayside.”

Yet conspicuously missing from Sidewalk’s proposal was any mention of politics. Developing a new city from the ground up inevitably raises a cat’s cradle of political choices. And the deployment of all that data does not reduce those political questions, but only multiplies them. How would all those streams of data be used to make decisions about public services? Who would control the platform, own the algorithms and potentially profit from the knowledge gleaned? And who would decide what could get built, whether bricks and mortar or digital infrastructure? On these and other political questions the proposal was either silent or else reverted to the passive voice, sometimes wrapped in mystifying jargon.

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In Prospect’s March issue: Gaby Hinsliff explains why all sides of the Brexit debate feel like they’re losing. She says that the Brexit war has raged on for two and half years and disfigured British politics in the process, leaving Remainers in mourning and Leavers crying betrayal. Elsewhere in the issue: James Ball, Martin Moore and Barbara Speed examine how we should be less worried about the tech giants Facebook, Amazon and Google and more worried about the data they hold about us. Ball argues that breaking up these huge companies isn’t the answer; Moore asks what would happens when a tech giant wants to run a smart city, and Speed looks at the increasing trend of tracking everything in our daily lives from the amount of water we drink to how many notifications we receive to our smartphone. Also, Rachel Sylvester profiles Sajid Javid, the Cabinet minister positioning himself for the top job.