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The end of Google City  

– and what do you have to do with it


Folha de São Paulo

August 20, 2020

Philip Yang e Carlo Ratti


What could have been one of the most ambitious urban renewal projects on the planet was suddenly canceled last May. After three years of projects and intense negotiations, Sidewalk Labs, a Google company, announced the end of the partnership with the city of Toronto that aimed to transform the city's waterfront, facing Lake Ontario, in a neighborhood endowed with the most advanced constructions and tools for urban management.


What happened? Why does this fact, which occurred in the distant Canadian city, matter to São Paulo residents or urban citizens from other cities?


In Canada and around the world, the project's progress was eagerly awaited, both by its legions of enthusiasts and by its detractors. After all, what could happen when a technological giant decides to use its creative force (and its economic power) to invent, as its prospects announced, a sustainable and inclusive city with the most advanced artifacts of the internet of things, artificial intelligence and big data?


With sensors scattered around the city monitoring the movement of people and autonomous automobiles, the temperature of the sidewalks, the opening and closing of marquees according to sun and rain and even the movement of lamps, dumpsters and benches, would we be facing a technological Eden or, in the words of one of its fiercest critics, "an experiment that colonizes surveillance capitalism, which attempts to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues"?


In the project's closing announcement, Daniel Doctoroff, the company's CEO, pointed out the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainties that hang over the world and the Toronto real estate market as central factors in the project's withdrawal. The argument, although sincere, hides more than reveals the three real causes of the project's permanent suspension: the deadlocks on the scale of the enterprise, the public-private offsets and privacy concerns.


After seeking an extension to a perimeter of 190 acres, the project was shrunk to a mere 24 acres, a fact that broke the balance of its economic-financial model in addition to making unfeasible the implementation of certain technologies that are applicable only in larger spatial scales. In the negotiation process between government and Google, the difficulties in agreeing on the value of public land and on the duties to be carried out by each party were also evident. And, finally, concerns raised intensely by civil society regarding privacy have led to a stalemate - not solved - in the issue concerning the management and property of digital data.


As São Paulo discusses the implementation of its tentative International Center for Technology and Innovation (CITI), which also intends to be an innovative urban project, the failure of Toronto and the errors incurred by the different actors involved must be taken as a reference and teaching to be considered in the crafting of the strategy for making the 'paulistano' project viable. In particular, it remains evident that transparent dialogue - a component that was far below from the desirable levels in Toronto - is a fundamental factor in building the balance between the interests of government, market and society.


But perhaps the biggest lesson of the episode is this: the premature end of the negotiations was a defeat for everyone. It was a loss for Sidewalk Labs, the city of Toronto, and for the greater cause of urban innovation. It reminds us that improving platforms for community engagement and public-private dialogue is a formidable challenge that needs to be faced, an additional reason why we must continue to create new experiments for urban innovation.


Urban innovation is particularly necessary today, as the Internet of Things is spearheading a new wave of experimentation that will place cities on a new level of well-being and productivity. To be out of it condemns us to backwardness. We are entering the era of integrated, eco and senseable cities, in which information and communication technologies capture extraordinary amounts of data and deploy their findings, often in real-time, to transform economic, administrative and community practices. We must then try out a variety of different approaches, from the public and private sectors, on how to best incorporate these technological advancements into our lives and test out their pros and cons.


The more different attempts we make, the more likely we are to achieve a healthy balance in urban life and, thus, to strengthen our democracies. Certainly, some efforts will be better than others, which is why it is so important to commit to a wide range of projects. The Arco Pinheiros – based on the promise of CITI and PIU Vila Leopoldina, a project adjacent to CEAGESP – bears this great potential for innovation and hope for a better São Paulo that will remove us from backwardness and finally project us into the collective future that all paulistanos desire.


Philip Yang

Founder of Urbem (Instituto de Urbanismo e Estudos para a Metrópole)

Carlo Ratti

Carlo Ratti teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the Senseable City Lab, and is a co-founder of the international design office CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati. He co-chairs the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Cities.

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