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For designers, cities are the grandest of ambitions. To design a city is not merely to sketch buildings and boulevards, it is to create worlds and shape lives. Think of Periclean Athens, Ming Dynasty Beijing, Haussman’s Paris, Lutyen’s Delhi, or L’Enfant’s Washington D.C.

And yet, if you could live in a so-called smart city—conceived by the most celebrated architects and designers under the direction of a public-private consortium that included one of the world’s most powerful technology companies—would you?

The residents of Toronto aren’t so sure.

Robert Hackett, in a fascinating feature in the new issue of Fortune, explains how mounting public concerns about Big Tech and surveillance capitalism forced Toronto to scale back a bold plan to transform the unused Quayside waterfront site into a tech-driven, eco-friendly, laminated timber utopia.

The project enlisted some of the design world’s brightest stars, including architecture firms Gensler and Michael Green Architecture, as well as Thomas Heatherwick Studios. Their ideas seem truly ingenious.

And yet, as Robert reports, “the project has been mired in controversy, amid an outcry over data mining and objections to the civic encroachment of a powerful corporation.” The corporation in question is Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s urban infrastructure company led by former Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff.

Quayside’s boosters (among them prime minister Justin Trudeau) hailed Sidewalk Labs as an ideal partner because technology holds the key to challenges that will vex many cities in years to come: creating jobs, reducing crime, delivering health services, conserving energy, minimizing environmental damage, and eliminating urban sprawl. Detractors said that Sidewalk Labs’ plan to install data sensors in public areas raises privacy concerns and cedes far too much control over municipal governance to an unelected corporation.

The Quayside contretemps highlights the uneasy alliance between designers, technology companies, management consultants, and government planners as they contemplate the future of cities, which are already home to more than half the world’s population. By 2050, an expected 2.5 million more people will live in urban areas.

Urban planners have talked about making cities “smart” for more than a decade. The McKinsey Global Institute defined “smartness” in cities as “using data and technology purposefully to make better decisions and deliver a better quality of life.” International Data Corporation estimates global spending on “smart cities” initiatives will reach $189 billion by 2023.

But some architects and designers have grown wary of the term. Rem Koolhaas famously criticized the concept as a rhetorical ploy used by tech firms to elbow architects out of the conversation about urban life. Why is it, he wondered caustically, that smart city proposals, always seem to depict cities “with simplistic, child-like rounded edges and bright colors” and treat residents like infants? “Why do smart cities offer only improvement? Where is the possibility of transgression?” (Sketches for Quayside are no exception.)

Meanwhile, China is already building smart cities. The current Fortune also includes a vivid—some will say disturbing—essay by Grady McGregor detailing the myriad ways technology, big data, and surveillance commingle in China’s most successful smart city, Shenzhen.

Cities, not to mention journeys to and from them, feel particularly perilous these days with the spread of the coronavirus epidemic. As many of you know, we’ve rescheduled Brainstorm Design 2020 to December 9-10. I’m happy to report that most of our speakers already have confirmed their participation on the new dates. Sign up for your invitation here.


Autor(en)/Author(s): Clay Chandler

Quelle/Source: Fortune, 18.02.2020

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