Google parent Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs building its own smart city in Toronto. But why not London next?

Lynsey Barber
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Preview Of The Canary Wharf Winter Lights Festival
London's smart city efforts deserve a boost from the tech company (Source: Getty)

Google's parent company Alphabet is building its own city, where it will tackle some of the most pressing issues facing London: urban growth, energy use, housing costs, and transportation.

But it's the Canadian city of Toronto where 800 acres of waterfront space will be built "from the internet up" by the tech giant, not the capital.

That's despite predictions for London's population hitting 10m within a decade, not to mention a housing market and air quality which have both been described as in crisis.

Read more: The mayor wants to make London the best smart city in the world

And let's not get started on the fact the city pioneered contactless ticketing on its transport system, but has spent the past five years putting regulation of innovative companies on the back burner as just one demonstration the mix of enlightened thinking and challenges under which transport operates in London.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs project will "create a test bed for new technologies".

“Technologies to build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities, which we hope to see scaled across Toronto’s eastern waterfront, and eventually in other parts of Canada and around the world," he said.

Watch: What is Alphabet's Sidewalk Toronto project?

One might have suspected London as a contender for such an ambitious (and unashamedly idealistic) project.

As urban academic Richard Florida has noted, it's about much more than building a smart city. "If done right and in keeping with its vision, it amounts to the world's first living laboratory for urbanism and city building," he tweeted.

"This is a partnership between a company and a non-profit organisation whose mission is to steward the development of Toronto's waterfront as a public good. This is a model that Amazon HQ2 and its competing cities would be wise to look to as an economic-community development partnership."

If you missed it, US cities are fighting over Amazon's second headquarters after it announced an X-Factor style process for deciding the location. In Birmingham, Alabama, giant Amazon delivery boxes wer dotted across the city this week in a bid to tempt it to choose the location, while Tucson Arizona sent a 21 foot tall cactus to Amazon's current headquarters in Seattle.

At a time when tech companies are examining their place in the world and their impact on society and surroundings (just take a look at Silicon Valley), tech companies should be asking not what the cities they are located in can do for them, but what they can do for their cities.

In London, we've welcomed the commitment of several tech companies to continue building there shiny new headquarters after Brexit, along wtih the jobs and economic benefits they bring. Perhaps we should have asked for more.

Read more: Meet the six startups working with TfL to make London a smart city

Our smart city efforts are there: a little funding for startups, open data thrown in by TfL, driverless car test areas, a touch of enlightened thinking from some local authorities and a new chief digital officer. And they should be applauded. But these have added up to very little in moving the dial when it comes to the big picture of an overcrowded, increasingly unaffordable and toxic city.

New York City's former deputy mayor for economic development Dan Doctoroff who now runs the Alphabet project cited several reasons for choosing Toronto, all of which would be at home in any description of the capital: diversity, openness, an urbanist legacy, a recent technology boom.

London should be primed to be the next in line for Alphabet's smart city project.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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