By Elizabeth Woyke (MIT),
On Toronto’s waterfront, where the eastern part of the city meets Lake Ontario, is a patchwork of cement and dirt. It’s home to plumbing and electrical supply shops, parking lots, winter boat storage, and a hulking silo built in 1943 to store soybeans—a relic of the area’s history as a shipping port.
Torontonians describe the site as blighted, underutilized, and contaminated. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs wants to transform it into one of the world’s most innovative city neighborhoods. It will, in the company’s vision, be a place where driverless shuttle buses replace private cars; traffic lights track the flow of pedestrians, bicyclists, and vehicles; robots transport mail and garbage via underground tunnels; and modular buildings can be expanded to accommodate growing companies and families.
In the early 2000s, so-called smart cities were all the rage. Captivated by the idea of urban districts that would use technology to reduce energy consumption and pollution, make transportation more efficient, and lure affluent tenants, countries including China, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates hired developers to transform large swaths of land into photogenic cities stuffed with the latest innovations.