Alphabet, Google’s parent company, unveil plan for the world’s first Smart City. But will it lead to innovation in the real world?

Richard Wallace

Dave Chapelle once joked that “If the internet was a real place, it would be disgusting and intolerable.”

We might be about to find out if he’s right.

Alphabet, the parent company of Google-which-is-definitely-not-taking-over-the-world-honest, has got bored of the voracious acquisition of companies and is now releasing its own city. Quayside, the world’s first ‘Smart City,’ will be located in Toronto and aims to be “a thriving hub for innovation and a community for tens of thousands of people to live, work and play.”

The thought of a tech giant known for unscrupulous data-harvesting offering real people a chance to “live and play” under their watchful eye might sound sinister — somewhere between messianic utopianism and hyper-capitalist voyeurism — but actual details remain thin on the ground, and those we do have actually sound pretty awesome.

The city is a proposed testing ground for all those far-fetched fantasies that whizz around Silicon Valley boardrooms, such as self-driving cars and “digital transportation solutions”; digital traffic-lights that allow extra time to disabled or elderly road-crossers; full public Wi-Fi; low-cost housing construction enabling pedestrianised neighbourhoods; and a new “digital infrastructure” designed to “incubate creativity.”

So far, so much like the futuristic cities we designed our primary school notebooks (without the flying cars and municipal laser-cannons. Yet.) But as VR, AI, hyper-loops, cryogenic freezing and missions to Mars inch closer to reality, it seems that we might finally be entering an age of sci-fi fantasy. So why shouldn’t we get a HAL-9000-esque giant robot-city too?

That’s what innovation is about, after all. Nothing is impossible on the page, which is how it should be. But as those ideas begin to creep into life, what are the obvious concerns that Alphabet will need to manage?

Google are regularly criticised for a lack of diversity, with a 70% male and 60% white employee demographic. Are they the best company to put in charge of actual, real-life demographics? Cities, in the real world, are complex, metropolitan spaces that require careful attention to ensure social cohesion. How confident are Google that they can avoid this through clever use of technology — and what does the perfect city look like for them? Is it also majority male and white?

Another concern is that increasing reliance on technology will be harmful in the long run. Vanity Fair ran an article in 2014 describing how pilots have become so reliant on fly-by-wire navigation that, on the rare occasions when fly-by-wire fails to behave as expected, pilots are less equipped to deal with the situation. If we became similarly reliant on everyday micro-innovations, could we begin to see similar effects in our day-to-day life, leading to catastrophe should the technology break down? Some might say that the project flies in the face of centuries of incremental progress and human pragmatism.

But there is an equally persuasive argument that we live in unique times, and require unique behaviour to ensure our future prosperity and survival. As with all innovation, a great deal of work will need to go into transitional work between successful experiments performed within the controllable sterility of a Smart City, and the messy unpredictability of our actual lives.

In this respect, Quayside represents the principle of effective innovation as we have always understood and practised it at Fearlessly Frank. A new environment — whether that’s a physical space or a territory of thinking — is a perfect place to explore new ideas. Even if the ideas that come out of Quayside aren’t immediately relevant to existing American cities — even if Boston and Philadelphia aren’t clamouring for artificially intelligent traffic lights in the immediate future — these innovations will inform new patterns of thinking that could become invaluable in the future.

No doubt some of the learnings of the Quayside project will be things we simply cannot imagine right now. Through Quayside, Google can explore the intersection of new technology and human behaviour far more intensively.

But, as ever, the important thing is that these innovations are properly managed. Alphabet needs to identify and address the potential pitfalls of radical innovating in order to implement new technologies successfully — and Google, their most well-known arm, are not usually the quickest company to cop to their own shortcomings. Innovation is exciting, but if tech-developers get carried away by the possibilities, they run the risk of making their innovations clumsy or counter-productive.

If managed correctly then Alphabet, despite their spooky alpha-and-omega moniker and aspirations of cyber-monopoly, might end up doing those of us still dwelling in boring, non-smart cities a favour.