Things You Should Know But Don’t: Google’s “City-Within-A-City”

Posted May 18, 2020

Last week, Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. released a statement announcing that they were discontinuing plans to transform an area of Toronto’s waterfront called Quayside into a “high-tech utopia.” Google began production last summer (The Verge).  The idea was to fulfill Alphabet CEO Larry Page’s long-time dream of infusing a city within a city as a way of experimenting with things like public Wi-Fi, self-driving cars, and other modern-technology advances (The Verge). Some even called it “a neighborhood built from the internet up.”

According to The Verge, had these plans continued, the utopian city would have potentially included the following:

  • Ten new buildings of mixed-use development consisting primarily of thousands of new residential units, as well as retail and office spaces, all made from mass timber
  • A proposal to extend the city’s light-rail system to serve the new neighborhood
  • Redesigning streets to reduce car use and promote biking and walking
  • Installation of public Wi-Fi, in addition to other sensors to collect “urban data” to better inform housing and traffic decisions
  • Proposal to reduce greenhouse gases by up to 89 percent
  • Building the new Canadian headquarters of Google on the western edge of Villiers Island

While Alphabet did not go into much detail about why it shut down the operation, some can’t help but compare it to a similarly failed plan for a utopian city in Minnesota in the 1960s called “The Experimental City” or “MXC.” After all, both cities were products of long-time dreams that didn’t quite have the support they needed to thrive.

So, here are my questions to you: had this Toronto project been a success, how much of the collected data from its “inhabitants” and visitors would actually be used, and how much of it would be classified as “dark data?”  “Utopia” implies an idyllic place where peace and tranquility reign.  But is a utopian city really possible if its architecture is dependent upon data? Do the two failed attempts spanning sixty years offer any lessons? Did MXC fail because technology wasn’t quite there yet? Did the Quayside project die because controlling the data created anything but a Utopia?

Every day more and more of our personal data is gathered, stored, analyzed and acted upon. It makes one wonder if privacy is actually an illusion. Can you think of a day where you were not influenced by texts, posts, and emails that used your data mined by others to deliver you something someone perceived you wanted or needed? And how many times did you respond with abandon and share even more of your personal information?  Feeling uncomfortable?  You should.

I have a feeling this is just the beginning.

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