25 November, 2019

Urban development, urban governance, and Big Tech: A home-made mix

Bissen town meeting with Google, November 2019 (photo by Carr)

For the past year, we have been following Sidewalk Labs (sister company to Google) in Toronto, where it wants to build a digital city along Toronto's waterfront. With the support of CITY Institute at York University, Carr spent several months in 2019 researching this process from the point of view of urban governance. First of its kind, there are many dimensions worth observing and all manner of open questions still outstanding. However, what can certainly be ascertained as of yet is that Sidewalk Labs (Big Tech) has effectively become a new player in the field of urban planning and urban development in the City.

Part of the research on 'Google City' in Toronto is also research on Google itself. Thus, when Google comes to Luxembourg to build a data centre, it naturally grabs our attention. And, volià: Luxembourg has its own story about Google and urban development.

Not much is known about the project. In 2017, Google signalled its interest in building a billion-dollar data centre in Europe a couple of years ago, pitting European countries against each other (among them, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, and Austria). In the scramble to put together a proposal, a piece of land in Bissen (a municipality north of the City of Luxembourg with a population of 3000) was found that could be put up for such use. Somehow, circa 50 million Euros changed hands to make this happen. Then, it was announced that Google would short list Luxembourg. And then, with a bit of research, one could discover that on December 12, 2017, LB Technology S.à r.l. was registered in the Luxembourg Business Registry (Registre de Commerce et des Sociétes) with an associated fixed capital of 50 million Euro, with two registered Board members, one in Mountain View California, the other in Luxembourg. Still, the go ahead depended on local approval in Bissen, as well as the results of a few feasibility studies.

By 2019, the land was re-zoned, and Google received the green light. By summer 2019, however, the Bissener council of aldermen had been dismantled, the mayor (CSV) had stepped down (after his own party members voted against him), and a new municipal government had formed. Resistance in Bissen and throughout the Grand Duchy had exposed that there were still so many unanswered questions.

Protest posters in Bissen, November 2019 (photo by Carr)
Last week, for the first time, Google came to the municipality of Bissen to present its plans for the data centre that it intends to build. The town hall was filled, the media was present, and a police presence was accounted for as well. Eager to know how Google presents itself in Bissen, Carr attended too.

Actually, the Google reps gave a rather predictable presentation with all of the standard program points that we have seen in other venues: First, admonish the audience that Google could go elsewhere; Luxembourg invited Google to build their data centre in Bissen, and not the other way around. The message here is that Luxembourg needs to sort itself out because Google takes no role in, or responsibility for, local (petty?) conflicts. Second, demonstrate how cool Google is: It is the biggest consumer of green energy; It will build "eco points": It supports diversity and the labour market (although evidence suggests otherwise). Third, show pretty pictures, and pastel coloured architectural renderings. Fourth, send Google employees to do the presentation, who will also be ill-equipped to answer difficult questions, referring to local procedures as the main inhibiting force.

This standard format certainly deserves some deconstruction. However, it needs moreover to be understood and recognised as a form of governance: This is how Google governs. And the consequences of it, and the sacrifices that will be made in order to accommodate it, should concern all levels of government in Luxembourg (including the EU), and anyone respecting civic responsibility and action.

Of course, yes, there are possible perks. And, yes, this is a consideration that ought to be carefully considered. Equally real, however, are the many questions and challenges, and associated knock-on consequences, that require answers now and will need answering later. Who did the deal? Who profited? Why? What will happen to transportation? What about water and electricity? What infrastructure will be needed and how, where, when, will it be built? Who will pay for it? What will the labour market be affected? Should Luxembourgers look forward to working in the digital industry? Or, should Luxembourgers look forward to 350 additional families from elsewhere (think Seattle)? How will gender equality be tackled (think Silicon Valley)? What about radiation of the workers and residents in the area? And what about sound? How will these affect the financial planning of local residents in Bissen or Roost or Mersch?

There are, of course, golden opportunities; But there are also potential tragedies, and this list is long. And, all of the open questions from today as well as those of tomorrow will need to be managed, and funded by someone. First and foremost, this needs to be articulated and acknowledged (to be a problem).

There are two further familiar patterns here. First, as is apparently the case in Toronto, it is up to local politics to push the issue of how to manage the cascade of challenges, while the central government makes obscure geopolitical decisions concerning ‘Digital Luxembourg”, AI and big data (all featured by Google on November 21). And, some ramifications for local government have already been seen; Municipal fragmentation is also a challenge. Second, is the clash between the Luxembourg central government and Luxembourg local politics. This is hardly the first time that the central government has asserted a certain vision over the Grand Duchy.
Carr, C., Hesse, M. 2019. Digital Urbanism and the Challenge of Urban Governance (DIG_URBGOV) – Short Research Summary
Carr, C. Hesse, M. New Publication on Smart Cities in Forum für Politik Gesellschaft und Kultur
Carr, C. 2019 Digital and city development and urban governance in Toronto
Carr, C., Hesse, M, 2019. Some notes on smart cities and the corporatization of urban governance
Carr invited to York University's CITY Institute as a Visiting Scholar, 2019
Carr 2018. Wagering the Waterfront? Angling the abc & xyz of Quayside Toronto
Carr, Lutz, Schutz, 2018 There is no one human scale - Reflections on urban development practice in Luxembourg
Carr/Hesse 2017. The Corporate City Looming? Part I
Hesse/Carr 2017. The Corporate City Looming Part II: The “smart” City competes
Carr 2017. Digital Cities - Toronto trying to get ahead
Carr 2017. Hipsterland in Toronto's East Downtown