Google’s Alphabet is Developing the Neighbourhood of the Future in Toronto

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, has announced that Sidewalk Labs, its urban innovation unit, will design a high-tech neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront. The neighbourhood, called Quayside, will prioritise, “environmental sustainability, affordability, mobility and economic opportunity”.

The initial phase for the development, part of the broader Sidewalk Toronto project, has received a $50m commitment from Sidewalk, but is predicted to cost at least a billion dollars by the time it’s fully completion.

As part of the broader project, Quayside seems to be the first attempt at creating what Sidewalk refers to as a “new kind of mixed-use, complete community”, an attempt the company presumably hopes to eventually expand across the waterfront and ultimately into other cities.

“This will not be a place where we deploy technology for its own sake, but rather one where we use emerging digital tools and the latest in urban design to solve big urban challenges in ways that we hope will inspire cities around the world,” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said on Tuesday.

Early concept images for the neighbourhood include self-driving cars and other infrastructure technologies. Images courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto

Located in the primarily publicly-owned 800-acre area called Port Lands, Quayside looks to be the test bed for potential future community design. With the planning process for the development starting with a community town hall on the 1st of November, we are still some ways off from knowing just what the neighbourhood will look like, but early illustrations include bikeshares, apartment housing, bus lines and parks.

More importantly, however, is Doctoroff’s previous discussions of what he believes future city design will look like. Technology focused, there’s been mention of sensors that track energy usage, machine learning and using high-speed internet to improve urban environments.

Specifically, at a summit hosted by The Information last year, he mentioned “thinking about [a city] from the internet up”. As would be expected from a company under the same parent as Google, Sidewalk seems to be concentrated on development that prioritises innovation and building communities with an eye to how technology can help found neighbourhoods.

“I like to describe it that we’re in the very early stages of what I call the fourth revolution of urban technology,” Doctoroff previously told Business Insider.

“The first three were the steam engine, which brought through trains and factories that industrialized cities. The second was the electric grid, which made cities 24 hours, made them more vertical, made them easier to get around in with subways and streetcars.

“The third was the automobile, which forced us to really re-think the use of public space in order to protect people from the danger of the automobile. We’re now in the fourth one. We’ve had an urban technology revolution … We’re seeing a real change in the physical nature of our cities.”

First floating city set to advance the development of drone taxis: Hoverbike director

A talk at The First Tahitian Seasteading Gathering yesterday has opened up the possibility of seasteadings – small floating cities – as a proving ground for people-carrying drones. With the first floating ‘island’ units having undergone early-stage testing for a seasteading off French Polynesia, the work currently being done could act as fuel for a variety of experimental technologies.

The talk was given by Oriol Badia Rafart, director of business development at Malloy Aeronautics. Building on Malloy’s work with the Hoverbike, Rafart described the development of “the uber of the skies, the airline of daily objects”. At the basic level, Rafart believes that floating cities will act as an accelerant for the development of drones in our daily lives.

The development of drones for wider commercial use is not a unique idea; Airbus for example is working on the development of various drone-based forms of public transportation. In concept, by making use of the skies we ease road congestion and, in no small part due to the automation, can potentially come up with more efficient modes of transport.

Rafart, however, focuses on the belief that the development of seasteadings will provide a fertile ground for scientific development. Moreover, it is the kind of development that will be vastly accelerated by the purpose and environment of a seasteading.

A proposed design for the French Polynesia-based floating city. Image and featured image courtesy of The Seasteading Institute

He suggests that the kind of machinery Malloy is developing is perfectly suited to the philosophy of the Seasteading Institute.

“The Seasteading Institute wants to create an ecosystem in which progress can happen: social progress, political progress and scientific progress,” he said. “We at Malloy Aeronautics believe we have to put technology and machines to work for those individuals there so they can focus only on such purpose.”

Of course, what makes the Seasteading Institute’s work of real value to people like Malloy is regulation. Free of traditional government, and established with the purpose of progress, seasteadings are ideal environments in which to test and develop technologies that would otherwise become quickly entangled in regulatory red tape.

A hoverbike developed by Malloy Aeronautics. Image courtesy of Malloy Aeronautics

It is of course understandable why regulations are in place over autonomous drones. If something goes wrong, no one wants a hoverbike plummeting from the sky above a busy street. That said, though, as laid out by Rafart, the current state of regulations poses large problems to making any actual progress in the field.

“Regulations that don’t allow any vehicle to fly without a pilot, to fly out of the line of sight and beyond the line of sight of a pilot, to fly to and from platforms that are not fixed in the ground, and they classify these vehicles and drones by their weight instead of by their use and their safety,” he said. “So, in sum, regulations that don’t understand what they are regulating.”

This sounds all well and good: the establishment of seasteadings as bastions of scientific progress that, free of regulation, allow researchers and companies to make quantum leaps in development. However, I’m just going to note that this whole thing is a little creepily reminiscent of Bioshock. Of course I want to ride a hoverbike. But the memories of an ocean-based society devoted purely to scientific progress with no limitation are a little too real.