When Sidewalk Labs, the city-building arm of Google parent company Alphabet, announced plans to build a data-driven neighbourhood of the future on the waterfront, Torontonians were predictably euphoric. A watershed moment marked with an event attended by Prime Minister Trudeau, Premier Wynne and Mayor Tory, the collective awe in the room was almost palpable. "They like us, they really like us!" One of the biggest and most influential tech companies in the world, an omnipresent figure in our daily lives, is enamored with Toronto.

But as the initial frisson dissipated, the questions arose. What would this urban innovation test bed look like? How much creative freedom and control are we willing to give Sidewalk Labs? What about privacy? These are important concerns that an innumerable amount of symposiums, panel discussions and public meetings will be tackling in the coming months, and they're questions Anthony Townsend, internationally recognized author, speaker and strategy consultant, asked at the University of Waterloo's 27th Annual Toronto Planning Dinner on Thursday.

Anthony Townsend addresses the crowd, image by Craig White

A night where planning alumni mingle with public and private sector professionals, making one of the Royal York Hotel's grand ballrooms looking unequivocally cramped, the well-attended event has always concluded with an enlightening keynote address. In past years, Robert J. Sawyer presented a glimpse into the cities of tomorrow, while Noah Toly grappled with the value of city rankings. With the Sidewalk Labs announcement still fresh in the minds of the audience, this year's subject was especially topical. Anthony Townsend, the founder of an integrated digital and physical urban planning strategic advisory studio called Bits and Atoms, and also the author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia, examined the intersection between global urbanization and ubiquitous computing. 

Anthony Townsend speaks to the assembled audience, image by Craig White

The digital revolution, Townsend says, is now being swept off the desktop and into the real world—into our pockets, vehicles, and the built environment. The smart cities that are erupting utilize data to predict, measure and enhance facets of our daily lives. Townsend suggests taking a walk around the city to see these changes happening first-hand. Telecommunications infrastructure, traditionally hidden underground is now technology "hidden in plain sight." Sensors in New York City that control traffic lights and report water consumption are sprouting out of century-old infrastructure networks. Apps that use global positioning satellite data to predict the arrival of transit vehicles are shaping how people allocate their time. Smart city implements come in all scales. A birdhouse in Amsterdam wired as a WiFi hotspot and an air quality monitor only allows connectivity if localized air quality meets the established threshold. Technology like this, Townsend says, is allowing cities to be used in a more intelligent way, and changing people's behaviour too.

Townsend posits that 2008 was the critical turning point when we looked to computers as a city-building tool to improve quality of life. It was the year the world's population became primarily urban—more people lived in cities than in rural areas. In the second half of the 20th century, the urban population tripled from one to three billion people. Also in 2008, for the first time, there were more mobile broadband subscribers around the world than fixed broadband subscribers. Cyberspace is no longer tied to the geographic restrictions of a desktop. Finally, it was the year there were more 'things' connected to the internet than people. Townsend suggests the main purpose of the internet is no longer for people to talk to each other, but for machines—household devices and civic infrastructure—to talk to each other. Global urbanization and ubiquitous computing will rule the 21st century.

A concept sketch of what could be coming to Quayside, image courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto

"Do we believe technology is a force for rationalizing and controlling the city, or one for unlocking creativity and new kinds of experiences and designs?," asks Townsend, who has been watching the nascent discourse around the Sidewalk Labs announcement. Calling it a "tremendous opportunity," Townsend also had some illuminating questions to add to the ongoing conversation.

The eventual build-out of Quayside would see North America's largest smart city, consisting of 3.3 million square feet of residential, office and commercial space, including a new headquarters for Google Canada. From timber and modular highrises to passive houses and self-driving cars, the early vision incorporates some of the world's most exciting advances in building and transportation technology. Besides some watercolour drawings portraying these fanciful and forward-thinking elements, the scheme is purposefully vague, meant to be customized as consultations with residents unfold. 

Townsend wonders how Google can leverage its information collection, image via Anthony Townsend

Upon reading the report and viewing the illustrations, Townsend was taken aback with how familiar it seemed. "Is Sidewalk being too timid with technology? Knowing what we know about Google and their approach to technology is that they don't do incremental, they don't do quaint, they don't do familiar. They do radical innovation and they bring a tremendous amount of resources to it." To Townsend, Google's trademark ability to index and convey the world's information is not immediately discernible in the plan. "Can they draw on that resource more and bring more of that track record to this project?" he asks.

Townsend's second question deals with the functionality of the neighbourhood. "What would life in a city of data look like?" he wonders. "The collection of data, the sensing that happens in cities, and how we control and use that data is really going to be the thing that defines what it's like to live in a city in the 21st century. Everything else will be an afterthought." 

A hypothetical map of what Quayside could have in store, image courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto

A research project in Chicago called 'The Array of Things,' a system of multi-sensor pods that measure data related to traffic and air quality, was criticized in the public sphere over privacy concerns and a perceived lack of benefit for citizens. The balance between how researchers collect and use information, and how residents derive positive outcomes from data, is a cautionary tale that Townsend says Toronto needs to be aware of. In the 200-plus pages of documents about the physical vision of Quayside, only two pages covered privacy, he notes. "The risk of screwing it up is astronomical. Everyone's excited about Toronto becoming a hub for urban innovation but it could also be a place where this all goes south very quickly." 

A city so eager to unlock the potential of a waterfront site that has languished for decades, Townsend ponders what could be done at the site right away. "What does it take to create an urban innovation cluster and what can start now?" It's a long lead time and you can't afford to wait, he says, pointing to pop-up interventions like the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, which utilizes shipping containers to shape an urban utopia. Though it has struggled to create anything of "lasting value," Townsend notes that other pop-up projects around the world could serve as potential blueprints for success. The MediaCityUK development in Greater Manchester moved thousands of BBC employees out of London, reinventing an undeveloped site to focus on media and entertainment. What is now a district of shiny buildings and public spaces was initially a humble industrial building that was converted into a digital film and television studio, gradually seeding a cluster and rehearsing the future.

MediaCityUK in Manchester, image by Flickr user David McKelvey via Creative Commons

Townsend's speech reminds us of the overwhelming complexity of the project, and the need to look beyond our borders to borrow elements from successful smart cities around the world. And despite all the innovations and novelties that Sidewalk wants to bring to the city, Townsend notes that the Quayside concept needs to be one attuned to Toronto. "What you don't want to happen is have the digital planning at Quayside define the agenda for the rest of the city. The district plan needs to follow the city-wide vision, not the other way around."