Abstract: ‘Smart cities’ has become a hegemonic concept in urban discourses, despite substantial criticism presented by scholarly research and activism. The aim of this research was to understand what happens when one of the big digital corporations enters the field of real estate and land use development and urban planning, how existing institutions respond to this, and how modes of urban governance are affected. Alphabet Inc.’s plans for Toronto’s waterfront provided insights into these questions. Our investigations traced a complex web of place-making practices that involved all levels of government, the general public, and networks of actors throughout the private sector. Methodologically, the discourse was reconstructed with local fieldwork, interviews with key actors, participating in tours and public meetings, and secondary sources. It was found that Alphabet Inc.’s plan to build a world-class digital city contained some lessons for urban studies and urban planning practice. First, Alphabet Inc.’s plans, which unfolded amidst initiatives to expand the knowledge economy, confirmed concerns that the trajectory of neoliberal, market-driven land use and speculation along the waterfront remains unchanged. Second, digital infrastructures are potentially a Trojan Horse. Third, it was seen that municipalities and their modes of urban planning are vulnerable to the political economic manoeuvrings of large corporate power. Fourth, Alphabet Inc. operates as a post-political package driven by a new coalition of politics, where the smart city is sold as a neutral technology. The controversies surrounding the project, however, stirred a civic discourse that might signal a return of the political.
Keywords: digital cities; governance; post-politics; smart cities; Toronto; urban planning