Editor | Cassandra Lau
Have you ever had to wait at a red pedestrian light for a moment too long?
It might come as a surprise to you when I say that the idea of smart cities has been around for 50 years plus. But it surely cannot shock you more than who came up with the idea: Walt Disney.
“a community of tomorrow that will never be completed but will always be introducing, testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems”
Beyond the confines of two-dimensional creations of imagination, Disney envisioned a city that would “take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centres of American industry”, to generate a “community of tomorrow that will never be completed but will always be introducing, testing and demonstrating new materials and new systems.” This 1966 Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow in Florida would have been the world’s first smart city if Disney had not died shortly after from lung cancer, Jonathan E. notes that “The original EPCOT concept was an evolution of this idea, shifting the focus from natural resources to technology and experimental systems of urban planning.” Instead 16 years after his passing, the project was integrated into Disney World as a theme park attraction. Like a historic item on display behind closed doors, like a film behind cased screens, Disney’s futuristic utopia was left, ironically, to the science of tomorrow. A tomorrow that never came till recently.
Last October, Toronto, Ontario and the Canadian governments partnered up with Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google that came up with a $50 million design for a dozen acres across Toronto’s waterfront, Quayside. A design that will be “the world’s first neighbourhood built from the internet up”.
This summer, Sidewalk Labs was officially named “funding and innovation partner” by Waterfront Toronto and a corporation comprised of three levels of government. A Plan Development Agreement (PDA) was also released on 31st July which, as explained by Waterfront Toronto, “establishes the scope, budget, principles and governing structures for the creation of the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP or plan).”
The city has essentially been transformed into a lab, or as many urban planners and city officials around the world refer to as “Google’s Guinea-Pig City”, and “A Smarter Smart City”. But one might ask, how can technology address current urban issues? Is it a city of fun-and-games, or a city that can actually perpetuate a better quality of life for all.
To create “a place whose constant data flow lets it optimise services constantly, requires something different, a ground-up project not only woven through with sensors and Wi-Fi, but shaped around waves of innovation still to come,” the question of affordability arises.
Yes, with mass-produced sensors priced less than a dollar a piece, accessibility to high-speed broadband and affordable cloud computing, it has become more plausible for a smart city to be built. But what about the running costs? Who will run it?
The Housing Crisis
For World Town Planning Day, Professor Christine Whitehead is giving an economist’s view of the housing crisis as it is an increasing problem today. If smart cities are aimed at improving the quality of life for all, will it help solve the housing crisis or worsen it?
In theory, smart cities have more land availability for housing with the cut-down of roads and cars, and “accessible to the middle class”. In Toronto, Sidewalk aims to achieve a 14 percent reduction in the cost of living for residents, but how would this hold up in the long run?
In reality, smart cities would attract competition between real estate firms to construct new living spaces. With new flashy apartments in a high-tech city, it is guaranteed to be an increase in housing and living costs. Those who are less well-off will remain in areas without access to this level of intelligent networking, which could generate an even great gap of inequality.
The concern about funding seems minor when looking at the bigger picture of issues. How will cities afford the transformation? Will cities have to team up with large tech giants in order to run the project? How do those tech companies benefit?
How do those tech companies benefit?
You know those creepily relevant advertisements that pop up when you least expect them to? Well that’s how Google earns money. There’s a misconception that the company sells off data, when it actually saves and analyses your data as a selling-point for advertisers. So in a way, it could be seen as mutually beneficial, but…
What about citizen privacy?
So Google doesn’t sell our data, cool. But think about having a government possess all the whereabouts, interactions, and details of an individual – not just NSA Snowden-style, but in real-time, real life style.
In Dubai, the UAE’s prime minister and Emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, explains his plans to collect data on citizens is to “make Dubai the happiest city on earth”. Not only is there a controversial belief that happiness can be easily measured and created through data collection, but there are concerns surrounding citizens’ human rights in an authoritarian state.
Already well under way in China, by 2020, Chinese officials plan to have 626 million surveillance cameras operating across the country, feeding information into the national “social credit system”. A system that will assign a credit score to each individual based on observed behaviours and interactions with people in real life, and digitally. This debate on what The Economist calls, “the world’s first digital totalitarian state”, could go on and on, but that’s another debate for another day.
What about balancing democracy with corporate control?
As contradictory as it may seem, but it is also important to look at the lack of power governments might have as a result of building a smart city.
In hindsight, walking down the aisle with tech giants that have pockets full of cash, innovation, and resource seem to be cities’ best chance at achieving a ‘tomorrow’. However, there are concerns over who gets the better end of the deal – at the end of the day, tech companies will the upper hand. In fact, Google has already bought up parts of the Bay Area and New York, according to Nancy Scola from Politico, “power and public appeal could easily overwhelm cash-strapped local governments even before it becomes repository for all that citizen data.” Urban analysts have concluded that it seems to be a “short-term salvation that, generations from now, will have set cities on the wrong path.”
It would be nice to not have to wait for a red light when there’s absolutely nobody else around, but it would also be nice to be able to jaywalk without being judged and scored eternally for that one moment of impatience.
Smarter cities, are without a doubt, safer cities when it comes to reducing crime, accidents, or greater accessibility for the disadvantaged. However, at what cost?