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PropTech Today: Google announce plans for world’s first Smart City

Google, under the command of parent company, Alphabet, has set its sights on building the world’s first digital city, in Toronto, Canada. It believes that technology can help ‘fix’ cities by re-developing them ‘from the internet, up’.  

It is rumoured that before Toronto was revealed as the target of Google’s plans, it had been eyeing up Detroit, a city which exists as a shadow of its former self, suffering from the decline in domestic manufacturing, left to dwell in its own nostalgia and societal discontent. 

Google believes that by building cities ‘from the internet up’, the areas of the world that have long been ignored, and suffered greatly as a consequence, can be rejuvenated and ‘saved’. 
On first glance, it seems that choosing Toronto to pilot the idea goes against this vision of ‘fixing’ cities. Toronto is thriving; Canada’s largest city, full of culture, wealth and, more recently, the owner of a stellar reputation for developing tech, with companies such Drop, the FinTech wonder boy, and PropTech’s very own Zoocasa based here. On first glance, it certainly isn’t a city that needs fixing.

But look a little closer and you start to see what Google sees. Yes, Toronto has developed into a thriving metropolis, but there is still an area of the city that hasn’t been developed.

Even those who live in the city will rarely, if ever, have visited its under-developed industrial waterfront, which has no businesses and no attractions whatsoever. It has, somehow, been left behind. Google has sniffed it out as an area that yes, boarders a very successful tech city, but is also in desperate need of investment and nurture. 

It has been described as a ‘12-acre ghost town’, situated between Toronto city centre and the stunning Lake Ontario beach front. It’s actually a very astute decision by Google, given that it’s an area which allows them to run the pilot scheme without having to cause aggravation by displacing existing residents or businesses.   

A tech giant pledging to build a new city may sound like a plotline from HBO’s superb Silicon Valley (watch it!), and one instantly scoffs at the tech giant’s ego. But we all know Google well enough by now to understand that there is always method in the madness. In this case, that method lies behind the statement, ‘from the internet, up’. 

What does that mean? 

It means that this new Smart City will be designed and constructed on a foundation of connectivity. Town planning and architecture will all be executed, first and foremost, to allow for the strongest and most reliable digital infrastructure possible. 

This is quite an undertaking, and one which requires Google to have either a phenomenally accurate crystal ball, or absolute confidence in its vision of the future. Roads need to be designed to accommodate the next 30 years’ worth of transport innovation; offices need to be built to compliment the changing ways in which people will work. 

I don’t doubt Google knows far more about the future than you or I, but is it possible to know enough to future proof a brand new city? I guess, if anyone can do it, these guys can.

The most interesting aspect of this whole story is that it suggests a vital change in mentality, not just for urban planning, but for all of humanity. Building a city from the internet up indicates that we, the people, are being told that the time has come, for all of us to accept that the future is digital, the future is online and the future is built on a groundwork of speed, accessibility and convenience. Tech is no longer a choice. It’s an inevitable step in human evolution.  

There is, however, one potential issue that I see: it’s all well and good creating a Smart City on an ideally located patch of wasteland, situated next to a major city and an international airport. But, if this pilot is a success, the next step will be rollout. 

How is Google going to negotiate the necessary changes to an established city’s infrastructure? There will be extreme physical limitations, not to mention the effect it will have on current residents and existing businesses. 

There is also the matter of gentrification; a particularly controversial issue in London at the moment. If Google were, for example, to ever eye London for potential development, it is inevitable that the cultural and economic existence of its chosen development site would radically shift. 

We live in fascinating times, and Google is the greatest of entertainers; a superstar. The vision it displays with this announcement is inspired. But even if this pilot is a success, I don’t see Google taking over world’s urban infrastructure just yet. 

Instead, perhaps, we’ll see an increasing number of developments in ideally situated locations, ‘under-developed’, spacious and easily accessible...I hope nobody’s too fond of the Peak District...

*James Dearsley is founder of the Digital Marketing Bureau and a PropTech communicator. To sign up to James’ Sunday PropTech Review, click here.

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