Would YOU live in Google’s ‘city of the future’? High-tech Toronto neighbourhood that will monitor resident’s daily lives using sensors in everything from bins to traffic lights raises privacy concerns
Constant surveillance may sound like an Orwellian vision of the future, but it could become reality in a ‘smart city’ district being planned by Google‘s parent company.
Alphabet is turning a disused area of Toronto’s waterfront into the first of its high tech neighbourhoods, as a pilot project for bigger things to come.
Everything from rubbish bins to traffic lights could be equipped with hardware designed to gather data and monitor changing conditions in the area.
If successful, the scheme could one day lead to entire cities where citizens every move is scrutinised by technology
The plans, being developed at Alphabet-owned Sidewalk Labs, will start with the construction of an area called Quayside, located just southeast of Downtown Toronto.
Technology tested in this first stage will then be brought in across the Eastern Waterfront in an area known as Port Lands, one of North America’s largest areas of underdeveloped urban land at more than 325 hectares (800 acres).
Sidewalk Toronto, which will be home to Google’s Canadian headquarters and some 300 employees once complete, aims to integrate technology wherever possible to create a more efficient and heavily automated urban environment.
The company expects the area will house 5,000 people and host another 5,000 workers within three to four years.
But the sheer scale of data gathering required to make it a reality are a cause of concern to some industry experts.
David Murakami Wood, an associate professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who studies surveillance in cities, is worried that our ability to give consent to trade our privacy for convenience ‘goes out the window straight away’ under the scheme.
Speaking to CBC News, he said: ‘I think in some ways what we’re facing here is a situation where none of this is very much like anything we’ve seen before.
‘I think maybe we’re putting too much emphasis on privacy as a defence against this kind of surveillance capitalism.
‘And I think we’re going to find out the limitations of that approach pretty soon, because it doesn’t deal with a lot of other issues around human rights and forms of inequality that are generated through these systems.’
Dr Wood is not the only academic concerned over the implications of the plans.
Andrew Clement is a Professor Emeritus and surveillance researcher in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, where he co-founded the Identity, Privacy and Security Institute.
Speaking to the Toronto Star, he said: ‘Sidewalk Labs’ proposal to build Quayside as an experimental urban neighbourhood “from the internet up” should raise red flags for those who care about privacy and democracy.
‘These concerns can be allayed only if Sidewalk’s internet is much more respecting of our rights than the one that its parent, Google/Alphabet, is busily shaping.
‘It would be impractical for individual residents of Quayside to be able to consent, on an adequately informed basis, to the myriad forms of data collection and use proposed.’
Among the areas for innovation targeted by Sidewalk Labs is urban mobility, with self-driving technology and digital navigation tools giving rise to a next-generation, point-to-point transit system.
New construction methods and flexible building designs will enable radical mixed-use, walkable neighbourhoods that reduce the cost of housing and retail space, the firm says.
It claims a suite of design and infrastructure innovations will dramatically reduce building energy consumption, landfill waste, and carbon emissions.
In a written statement, a company spokesman said: ‘Sidewalk Toronto will blend people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology to achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.
‘At the core of a future city is a layer of digital infrastructure that provides ubiquitous connectivity for all, offers new insights on the urban environment, and encourages creation and collaboration to address local challenges.
‘All-weather infrastructure and data-driven management tools enable cities to make parks and public plazas more comfortable, lively, and safe, and self-driving vehicles enable communities to reclaim streets for public space and social connections.’
Google parent Alphabet announced its plans to invest $50 million (£36 million) in the initial planning and testing phase of the project in October 2017.
‘For the foreseeable future this will be the primary focus of what we do,’ Dan Doctoroff, chief executive of Sidewalk Labs, said in an interview at the time.
One of the first projects Sidewalk Labs will take on is a sensor-based technology to manage crowds on a nearby street often filled with a potent mix of pedestrians, cyclists and motorised traffic, which Mr Doctoroff said could be tested as early as the first quarter of 2018.
He said the company was also looking to integrate self-driving technology into the project over the longer term.
Assuming initial success, Sidewalk Labs could expand its partnership with Waterfront Toronto, the public agency funded by federal, provincial and city governments with a mandate to develop a much larger area nearby of industrial wasteland.
Mr Doctoroff said the company had looked at more than 50 metropolitan areas in North America and sites in western Europe and Australia before settling on Toronto as the prime location for its future city test bed.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who announced the partnership with Google, said he hoped that Quayside would become ‘a thriving hub for innovation and a community for tens of thousands of people to live, work and play.’
The Google unit has previously worked with Qualcomm Inc and Civiq Smartscapes to retrofit New York City phone booths into digital billboards that serve as WiFi hotspots.
Intersection, the Sidewalk Labs subsidiary behind the effort, recently launched similar kiosks in London.
Another division, Flow, has held talks with cities such as Columbus, Ohio, about providing software to evaluate transit programs.
Mr Doctoroff said he expects the project to lower the cost of living, including by reducing commutes, and for it to be the world’s first urban development to reduce a city’s carbon footprint.