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Is data mining the future of urban funding?

Submitted by scc europe staff on November 19, 2018

Smart city projects and solutions can breathe new life into a struggling city, one neighbourhood at a time. But what if urban services that compile data are the key not only to modernizing a city but also to funding it? With the redevelopment of former harbours like Helsinki’s Smart Kalasatama, and projects like Interactive Cities, where Genova is leading the way with digital developments that impact city governance, both EU cities could benefit from Google Urbanism and its plan to “think about a city from the Internet up.”

Most people are familiar with tech giant Google, but two years ago it restructured to become Alphabet, creating a parent company with an umbrella of brands that includes Nest Labs and Google Fiber. Now the company is using its urban services like city maps and self-driving cars to create alliances that rethink the way smart cities are built to push forward progress in more undeveloped spots. While Toronto may be the first beta city on the list, let’s see how cities in Europe may be able to benefit in the future from the technology these types of solutions offer.-Bruno De Man 

Funding cities of the future

Real-time traffic information, free Wi-Fi, delivery robots…these are just a few of smart solutions that can reinvent and revolutionize a city while it receives a revenue from the data harvested in the process. Alphabet is looking to pool together its digital resources and services using cities as sites of “data extractivism,” compiling data and converting it into artificial intelligence technologies. In this sense, Alphabet would help digitalize and modernize cities using a few of its own solutions, such as adaptive traffic lights that prioritize pedestrians and cyclists; air quality sensors; advanced energy grids; and automated waste sorting. Alphabet would also form alliances with everyone from property developers to institutional investors in its effort to reshape these developing cities.

For cities in Europe, this could offer a streamlined approach to incorporating smart solutions, thereby improving quality of life by introducing artificial intelligence that lowers energy costs and improves sectors like transportation, with car sharing schemes reducing traffic and air pollution. Dubbed Google Urbanism, the project is already looking to cities like Toronto, Canada where it plans to transform an undeveloped waterfront area called Quayside into a progressive neighborhood whose centerpiece is the Loft, a mixed-use building prime for residential, retail, parking and office purposes, which can shift depending on what the neighborhood—and market—requires.

Google Urbanism claims that it can help generate financial returns for the city by licensing public space, even using online ad dollars to fund public space, according to an article in Fast Company. In the article, designer Nicolay Boyadjiev from the Strelka Institute for Media Architecture and Design puts it this way: “We adapted a concept from the tech sector: the controversial idea that citizens are ‘users’ of the city, and as users their presence represents a ‘resource’ that is currently disproportionately tapped into by digital platforms such as Google or Facebook, at huge financial gains, but without any benefit for the original platform that hosts their activity—this being the city.”

These types of data-funded projects are starting to shift the conversation when it comes to smart city development and infrastructure, opening up new possibilities for cities and neighbourhoods in Europe when it comes to using data to connect the city—and maybe even profit in the process.