Searching for the Smart City’s Democratic Future

Article by Bianca Wylie at the Center for International Governance Innovation: “There is a striking blue building on Toronto’s eastern waterfront. Wrapped top to bottom in bright, beautiful artwork by Montreal illustrator Cecile Gariepy, the building — a former fish-processing plant — stands out alongside the neighbouring parking lots and a congested highway. It’s been given a second life as an office for Sidewalk Labs — a sister company to Google that is proposing a smart city development in Toronto. Perhaps ironically, the office is like the smart city itself: something old repackaged to be light, fresh and novel.

“Our mission is really to use technology to redefine urban life in the twenty-first century.”

Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, shared this mission in an interview with Freakonomics Radio. The phrase is a variant of the marketing language used by the smart city industry at large. Put more simply, the term “smart city” is usually used to describe the use of technology and data in cities.

No matter the words chosen to describe it, the smart city model has a flaw at its core: corporations are seeking to exert influence on urban spaces and democratic governance. And because most governments don’t have the policy in place to regulate smart city development — in particular, projects driven by the fast-paced technology sector — this presents a growing global governance concern.

This is where the story usually descends into warnings of smart city dystopia or failure. Loads of recent articles have detailed the science fiction-style city-of-the-future and speculated about the perils of mass data collection, and for good reason — these are important concepts that warrant discussion. It’s time, however, to push past dystopian narratives and explore solutions for the challenges that smart cities present in Toronto and globally…(More)”.