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An image of a hand over abstract Corbusian forms.

Illustration by Dustin Horn

“Le Corbusier was planning not only a physical environment. He was planning for a social utopia too.” —Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961

In 1933, Le Corbusier published Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City), a polemic on modernist design and urban planning. His vision was radical: a utopian city emerging from war-torn Europe, enabled by industrialization and inspired by the belief that modern design and technology could restore harmony between man and his environment, effect progressive social change, and create a more efficient and egalitarian world.

Le Corbusier’s city was an expression of mechanical thinking rendered in brutally simple concrete forms. On a vast grid of idealized proportions, he envisioned monolithic towers rising above wide highways, which in turn floated above open parks and infrastructure below. Every element, and every function, had a place and a purpose intended to optimize daily life. It was a city created for the automobile and the accelerating pace of modern society. In both plan and ideology, it was a city designed for and as a technology. It was a machine for living on a grand scale—an epic and romantic expression of the future and a dramatic break from the medieval cities it was intended to replace.

Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), criticized Le Corbusier’s design for separating functions, moving people away from the street, and placing the automobile at the center of it all: “He attempted to make planning for the automobile an integral part of his scheme, and this was, in the 1920s and early 1930s, a new, exciting idea. He included great arterial roads for express one-way traffic. He cut the number of streets because ‘cross-roads are an enemy to traffic.’ He proposed underground streets for heavy vehicles and deliveries, and of course like the Garden City planners he kept the pedestrians off the streets and in the parks. His city was like a wonderful mechanical toy.”

It would take decades for Le Corbusier’s influence to be realized—often as well-intentioned responses to needs for affordable housing and urban reform following World War II. As the automobile remade both cities and suburbs (paving the way for sprawl, white flight, and traffic as we know it), new high-rise housing projects were built in cities like St. Louis (Pruitt-Igoe) and Amsterdam (Bijlmermeer). In these places and many others, the towers, parks, and highways of modernist idealism collided with the messy reality of human behavior, the inherent complexity of cities, systemic racism and poverty, and the intractable dynamics of economics and policy.

What resulted were iconic and spectacular failures, immortalized by the televised demolition of Pruitt-Igoe in 1972, only a few decades after it was built. While the demise of these projects (and for some, the dream of modernism itself) is more nuanced than an image of the buildings imploding, it persists as a cautionary tale about the limits of top-down design thinking and the hubris of master planning. These moments are also a reminder that the future is inherently uncertain and that aligning today’s good intentions with overly idealistic assumptions about future technologies and their trajectories is naive at best.

A New Machine

Even so, technology is a powerful mythology. In downtown Toronto, a 12-acre plot of industrial land known as Quayside is slated for development as a living laboratory for emerging tech and a model for future cities. Toronto selected Sidewalk Labs (Alphabet/ Google) as a partner for this project based on an ambitious proposal: they would use the land to design and build a new city from scratch, supported by an underlying smart city platform that would enable a multitude of digital products and services. For Google, this investment could become the “Android/ iOS” of smart cities—the dominant (and proprietary) technology on which the majority of smart services are built.

An aerial view of the Quayside parcel.

The project site, southeast of downtown Toronto. The Quayside neighborhood is a small section of the larger, 800-acre waterfront parcel eventually slated for development. Photo courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto.

The plan is a bold and remarkable synthesis of good intentions. It is a contemporary utopia designed to shape quality of life and create a better future through the use of data and intelligent systems. It includes underground infrastructure, autonomous transit, a vast array of sensors to soak up undefined quantities of data, smart trash cans, layers of new services, and much more yet to be envisioned. The buildings themselves are designed to adapt to multiple uses over time, including housing, office space, and retail, as if the city itself were software. It is an incredible machine.

Writing in MIT Technology Review, Elizabeth Woyke suggests: “Unsurprisingly for a company spawned, in part, by technologists, Sidewalk thinks of smart cities as being rather like smartphones. It sees itself as a platform provider responsible for offering basic tools (from software that identifies available parking spots to location-based services monitoring the exact position of delivery robots), much as Google does with its smartphone operating system, Android. Details are still under discussion, but Sidewalk plans to let third parties access the data and technologies, just as developers can use Google’s and Apple’s software tools to craft apps.”

Missing from the proposal is clarity about how it’s all going to work economically, socially, and technologically. There are obvious concerns about privacy—who will own the vast amount of public data and to what ends will it be used? Yet the most critical question remains unasked: is thinking of the city as a technology a good mental model to begin with?

Systems Within Systems

There are two significant problems with the phone analogy as a useful and desirable way to think about the future of cities. First, it is a myopic way to understand complex systems. Second, it makes an explicit assumption that may not be true—that a private-sector technology platform is inherently aligned with the public good.

Cities are uniquely hard design problems. They are mega systems, comprising many intertwined and complex minor systems. It’s one reason that a wicked problem like homelessness not only encompasses housing but also involves economics, emergent and conflicting human behaviors, societal attitudes, systemic racism, mental health, politics and policy, and the surrounding social service ecosystem—just to name a few factors.

What’s more, a city and its systems exist on a uniquely long continuum spanning multiple generations and technologies, in a condition of perpetual emergence and change. Consequently, any intervention needs to consider the past, present, and future simultaneously. This is the appeal of starting from a tabula rasa, like Google’s Quayside or Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse proposes. It allows designers and technologists to sidestep everything that makes the city complicated by creating a set of controlled conditions that align to a specific mental model and moment in time.

Dangerous Assumptions

If we have learned anything from Facebook, it is that platforms and algorithms are not neutral, networks are not necessarily good, and the best intentions can produce negative outcomes that, at scale, become really big problems. Likewise, advocating a market-driven platform model for cities assumes that self-interest is the best incentive for innovation and in turn is the best way to accomplish social change.

a set of smart city illustrations

Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto envision a technological utopia, built from the ground up as an exemplar of smart city planning and an unprecedented, wide-ranging platform for future products and services. Images courtesy of Sidewalk Toronto.

As also reported in Woyke’s MIT Technology Review article on the project, Sidewalk Labs estimates that 80 percent of the products and services at Quayside will be provided by third parties. Like today’s digital marketplace, many of these will be designed to monetize data and shape human behavior. In a capitalist system that favors disruption and incentivizes rapid growth, the sorts of services supplied by a smart city will be those that best align with the interests of the people in power and not necessarily with the broader needs of society—and particularly not with the concerns of the most vulnerable or marginalized populations.

So, questions about who has access to data, what kind of data it is, how long it persists, and how it can be used are critical to understanding the implications of the Quayside proposal, both now and as a future precedent. More fundamentally, what is the desired relationship between the public sector and private enterprise? Is civic data a commodity? Are citizens the product? Should the city itself be a vast monetization scheme? And what is the burden for transparency between those who collect/monetize data and the people that produce it?

This is uncharted territory, with significant and lasting impacts not only for cities but citizens and society. It would be worthwhile to ask difficult questions now, before the foundation is set and a technology platform is irreversibly embedded in all aspects of daily life, powering a machine no one wants to live in that cannot be demolished as easily as reinforced concrete. If we are to learn from the failures of modernism, we should first ask if we are overlooking similar issues by embracing the idea that all technological progress is inevitable or desirable.

There is also an opportunity to engage the sorts of wicked problems that most need our attention. We should acknowledge that the future is uncertain and not as simple as a smartphone. We should embrace complexity rather than seek to minimize it. We should be cautious of technological Trojan horses. Instead of bold utopian visions and abstractions, we might instead focus on targeted interventions in our urban environments that respect the interaction and evolution of people, place, and culture over time. That would truly be a smart city.