The idea that technology will fix complex and systemic problems like climate change, poverty, the housing crisis or health care is simplistic to say the least. We need a radical shift in how we live, and designing for environmental and social sustainability cannot simply be about applying new technologies to our existing models of living.

We need to support models of living that can both improve our actual well-being and reduce material demands on the planet.

Existing models of urban development that can achieve these goals are taking hold across North America. One example is collaborative housing or cohousing.

As municipalities consider the development of smart cities, they have to consider how citizens contribute to the relative “intelligence” of a city. Cohousing is just one such model as it both a form and a process of design for co-operation that helps create vibrant and resilient communities.

Alphabet‘s Sidewalk Labs is mapping out a new kind of neighbourhood that would redevelop a 12-acre waterfront district in Toronto called Quayside from “the internet up.”

This is just the beginning of the relationship, as all eyes are on the future development of the 750 acres neighbouring the site along the eastern waterfront.

It has been a year of scandals at Silicon Valley, from Google sharing emails with app developers to a joint investigation between the Justice Department, the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission into data leaks by Facebook. A networked neighbourhood built “from the internet up,” may not be the selling feature Sidewalk Labs had hoped it would be. It should come as no surprise that many people are suspicious of this proposal.

Several paths to the Smart City

There are different paths that lead to smart cities. For example, we have techno-utopias that focus on the digital optimization of the city, with a particular focus on infrastructure. Or we might consider how social innovations can lead to a better quality of life for more people.

Of course, there are times when these approaches intersect, but I can’t help but notice the particular focus on the technological aspects of just about every critique of the Quayside project.

These critiques, by academics, technology writers and concerned citizens are warranted because so far, “smart city” approaches the world over have generally been related to top-down processes with a focus on new technologies. People who live in these cities are often excluded from meaningful participation in the planning process that later impacts their lives. Given the levels of engagement on this issue, it’s quite clear that the citizens of Toronto are hungry for the opportunity to truly participate in making their city better.

With this in mind, I want to draw attention to one element of the plan presented by the Quayside proposal: Cohousing

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