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Would You Move To Googletown?

Silicon Valley’s greatest minds are now building cities. But will these tech pioneers succeed as town planners?

  • Eastern Waterfront site location for Sidewalks Toronto. Photograph courtesy of Sidewalk Labs

First they got us with clicks. Now they are turning to bricks. The US tech giants that gave us the smartphone, the smart home and the smart car now want to create the smart city – and, with it, smarter, happier humans. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is developing Quayside, a waterfront district set within the 800-acre area of Port Lands, Toronto, in a multi-billion-dollar joint venture with the city and private sector investors.

The Silicon Valley-based company’s new Sidewalk Labs subsidiary wants to create a real-life laboratory to test smart technologies that it hopes will make urban life easier. It aims to reduce or even banish congestion by building a traffic-sensing network that will collect data from smartphones, in-car sensors and cameras to direct vehicles on the fastest routes to their destination. It plans to help to solve the housing crisis that blights many cities by using new construction methods and materials, plus flexible building designs that will make it possible to convert residential buildings into commercial ones and back again as the city develops. Other ideas include a thermal energy grid that will be carbon neutral, delivery robots, heated bike paths and pavements that melt snow. When he announced the venture last year, Alphabet executive chairman Mr Eric Schmidt said the idea came from Google’s founders who got excited thinking of “all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge” – although he joked he knew there were good reasons that doesn’t happen.

Google’s rivals have also caught the building bug. Last July, Facebook announced plans for a 1,500-unit social housing scheme at Menlo Park in Silicon Valley. Billionaire Mr Xavier Niel’s Paris startup hub, Station F, is creating a 100-apartment co-living space this year to house 600 entrepreneurs. On the office side, WeWork has raised $760 million (£562m) to design and develop its own buildings from the ground up.

  • Meeting rooms at Station F, Paris. Photograph by Mr Patrick Tourneboeuf, courtesy of Station F

The prospect of a city designed by technologists makes many uneasy. The tech industry is better known in its Silicon Valley backyard for contributing to, rather than solving, urban problems, notably traffic congestion and pushing up property prices. What’s more, its corporate campuses are mostly models of how not to build cities. All but Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle are mega office parks, detached from their neighbouring communities that you have to drive to and from. Apple’s new circular “ring” headquarters in Cupertino is the perfect visual metaphor for the bubble in which all too many big tech executives live. There’s also the hitch that many of their residents will resist the idea of their data being harvested and shared all day, every day, even if it is for the common good. Tech giants have a bad record when it comes to protecting our privacy and our data.

So, can the silicon city work?

The technology certainly can. In fact, it already is. Back in Google’s nearest home city, San Francisco, entire districts are already being redesigned, thanks to data. “We’re building almost a new city in its own right to reinvent the concept of urban living,” says Mr Rob Rosania, a New York-based property developer, when we meet and talk on a bright California morning.

Mr Rosania, who runs Maximus Real Estate Partners, is using ride-sharing data and technology – and £3bn of investors’ money – to create the largest high-density development in any city in the world. Parkmerced comprises 9,000 homes for 30,000 residents, most of whom will dump their cars. They have no choice. Maximus has scrapped parking. It is also demolishing the existing buildings that are nearing the end of their lifespan, and rebuilding the entire neighbourhood at three times the current density level, while retaining just as much green space as before. To make sure buyers can still get around, residents get Uber credits, with car-share vehicles from Zipcars available for longer rentals.

  • Plans for an Ocean View Subway Line at Parkmerced San Francisco. Photograph courtesy of San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority

It all sounds good on paper – and looks pretty good when I visit. But even if the tech does work, will anybody want to live in silicon cities? Developers and dictators have been creating purpose-built, hi-tech cities for years. Most turn out to be stale visions of a future that has never arrived because few people like what they see when they get there and opt to stick with their old lives in their old homes.

Mr Stan Gale, of Gale International, a New York-based real estate firm, has got as close as anyone. He has built an entire hi-tech city from scratch. It’s called Songdo, 35 miles southwest of Seoul, South Korea. You may not know the name, but you will have seen it. It’s where the video for Psy’s global smash hit “Gangnam Style” was shot. At 5.7 sq km, with 100 million square feet of buildings developed at a cost of almost £30bn, a population of more than 300,000 living in 20,000 new homes, it is the largest privately funded, single real-estate venture in history. All the buildings are constructed from the latest energy-saving glass and steel and come with solar panels. Inside, all homes and offices have master switches to power-down air conditioning, heating and electrical appliances – except fridges, freezers and security systems – when they are empty. Anything that can be recycled is. All water is re-collected for irrigation, cooling and washing. Even the land Songdo is built on has been reclaimed from the Yellow Sea.

With the help of US tech giant Cisco, Mr Gale has plumbed every square inch of the city, even residents’ cars, with Wi-Fi, fibre optics and TelePresence screens that offer video communication almost as good as face-to-face meetings. Residents using TelePresence barely need to leave their homes and can work, exercise, grocery shop and even meet their children’s teachers while sat on the sofa.

  • An overview of the Central Park in Songdo, seen from the Observatory on the 29th floor of G-Tower, South Korea. Photograph by Mr Jun Michael Park/laif/Camera Press

Songdo struggled at first to attract residents. Some were worried by all the surveillance tech. Others wanted a little more grit. But bit by bit numbers have grown. It’s the same story back in San Francisco. More than 1,000 Parkmerced residents have enrolled in Mr Rosania’s new car-free living programme since it was introduced last year and there are now 500 active users. He predicts that number “will rise to 3,000 and then 5,000”.

If Parkmerced succeeds and developments like it follow, it could transform cities, where most of us now live, into greener and more pleasant lands. As the amount of data cars, buildings and people generate increases, the more automation will grow. With prices for rides in automated cars so cheap because there is no driver, some argue there will be soon be no need for most of us to own a car at all. The number of cars on the road could fall more by 50 per cent or more. And if those that remain are – and they are likely to be – electric, not only will congestion reduce but the air we breathe will be cleaner. “Some 20 to 30 per cent of city centres are currently devoted to parking in the US,” Mr Rosania tells me. “If you don’t need parking, buildings can change, streets can change, homes can change. We can all live better, healthier lives.”

He and Google and the other tech giants may be just starting, but it looks like they are on to something. Urban planners and developers in other cities are embracing tech’s ambitions. Moda Living is investing £1bn to create 6,000 rental-only homes in London, Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool, where tenants will get up to £100-worth of Uber credits a month if they agree not to have a parking space. In London, automated cars could free up as much as 20 square miles, three per cent of the 600 square miles that make up Greater London, for new homes.

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