Google’s plan to revolutionise cities is a takeover in all but name
Parent company Alphabet would provide services in response to data harvested
By Evgeny Morozov
Oct 21 2017
Last June Volume, a leading magazine on architecture and design, published an article on the GoogleUrbanism project. Conceived at a renowned design institute in Moscow, the project charts a plausible urban future based on cities acting as important sites for “data extractivism” – the conversion of data harvested from individuals into artificial intelligence technologies, allowing companies such as Alphabet, Google’s parent company, to act as providers of sophisticated and comprehensive services. The cities themselves, the project insisted, would get a share of revenue from the data.
Cities surely wouldn’t mind but what about Alphabet? The company does take cities seriously. Its executives have floated the idea of taking some struggling city – Detroit? – and reinventing it around Alphabet services, with no annoying regulations blocking this march of progress.
All of this might have looked counter-intuitive several decades ago, but today, when institutions such as the World Bank preach the virtues of privately run cities and bigwigs in Silicon Valley aspire to build sea-based micronations liberated from conventional bureaucracy, it does not seem so far-fetched.
Alphabet already operates many urban services: city maps, real-time traffic information, free wifi (in New York), self-driving cars. In 2015 it launched a dedicated city unit, Sidewalk Labs, run by Daniel Doctoroff, former deputy mayor of New York and a veteran of Wall Street.
Doctoroff’s background hints at what the actual Google Urbanism – as opposed to its theoretical formulations – portends: using Alphabet’s data prowess to build profitable alliances with other powerful forces behind contemporary cities, from property developers to institutional investors.
On this view, Google Urbanism is anything but revolutionary. Yes, it thrives on data and sensors, but they only play a secondary role in determining what gets built, why, and at what cost. One might as well call it Blackstone Urbanism – in homage to one of the largest financial players in the property market.
Since Toronto has recently chosen Alphabet to turn Quayside, a 12-acre undeveloped waterfront area, into a digital marvel, it wouldn’t take long to discover whether Google Urbanism will transcend or accommodate the predominantly financial forces shaping our cities.
Sidewalk Labs has committed $50m to the project – mostly for hosting a year-long consultation after which either party can exit. Its 220-page winning bid provides fascinating insights into its thinking and methodology. “High housing costs, commute times, social inequality, climate change and even cold weather keeping people indoors” – such is the battlefield Doctoroff described in a recent interview.
Alphabet’s weapons are impressive. Cheap, modular buildings to be assembled quickly; sensors monitoring air quality and building conditions; adaptive traffic lights prioritising pedestrians and cyclists; parking systems directing cars to available slots. Not to mention delivery robots, advanced energy grids, automated waste sorting, and, of course, ubiquitous self-driving cars.
Alphabet essentially wants to be the default platform for other municipal services. Cities, it says, have always been platforms; now they are simply going digital. “The world’s great cities are all hubs of growth and innovation because they leveraged platforms put in place by visionary leaders,” states the proposal. “Rome had aqueducts, London the Underground, Manhattan the street grid.”