Parent company Alphabet would provide services in response to data harvested
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.
The utopian, almost anarchist dimensions of Google Urbanism would be something to celebrate if most residents were in charge of their own spaces, buildings and infrastructures. Since this is not the case and such spaces are increasingly owned by private (and often foreign) investors, a radical departure from the highly bureaucratic, stifling and capital-constraining system of zoning laws or building regulations is likely to give us the paralysing horror of the Grenfell Tower rather than the reassuring uproar of a Vermont townhall.
Aside from the institutional investors shopping for entire city blocks, Alphabet understands the real audience for its cities: the global rich. For them, the narratives of data-driven sustainability and algorithmically produced artisanal lifestyles – Sidewalk Labs even promises “a next-gen bazaar” replenished by local communities of makers – are just another way to justify rising values of their property portfolios.
That Alphabet’s “urbanism as a service” might not appeal to the residents of Toronto does not matter. As a real estate project, its chief goal is to impress its future missing residents –above all, millions of Chinese millionaires flocking to Canada’s housing markets. Doctoroff was not equivocating when he told the Globe and Mail that Alphabet’s Canadian venture “primarily is a real-estate play”.
Alphabet’s urban turn also has a broader political significance. The courting of Alphabet by Canada’s politicians along with the bidding war that has erupted over Amazon’s second North American headquarters – some cities have offered it incentives to the tune of $7bn to relocate there – suggest that, despite the growing backlash against Silicon Valley, our political classes have few other positive (and, as importantly, cash-positive) industries to draw upon.
This is clearly the case with Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who has recently pitched his country as “a “Silicon Valley, plus everything else Canada is”. In one respect, he is certainly right: it has been Canada’s pension funds that turned real estate and infrastructure into the lucrative alternative assets they are today.
Let us not have any illusions about Google Urbanism. One has to be naive to believe that the emerging urban alliance of the technology and financial industries would produce results detrimental to the latter. Blackstone Urbanism will still be shaping our cities even if Alphabet takes over their garbage disposal. “Google Urbanism” is a nice way of camouflage this truth.