Google’s city of the future could be a cultural void. Here’s how to fix it

Plus three simple ways to plan culture in the 21st century

It’s finally happening. Plans are being drawn for a first look at the city of the future thanks to an ambitious new project in Toronto.

We’ve heard a lot of talk about ‘smart cities’ but with this investment from a Google subsidiary company and three levels of government in Canada, those theories may actually be put into practice.

Scroll through Sidewalk Labs’ website and it reads like a dream come true with lines about ‘people-centered urban design’ and ‘cutting-edge technology.’

But did you notice there was no mention of culture in this futuristic city?

There are no images of galleries or theatres. Maybe that’s intentional. But more importantly, I don’t see a future where culture is embraced in its broadest sense. I mean culture as the distinguishing factor of a place; its way of life, customs, and expressions.

It seems exceptionally well planned. But well planned spaces can lose their sense of place. Or, in this case, it would be void of one from the beginning.

But for those of us who work in arts and culture and are embracing the digital future, we can strike the right balance and put culture right where it belongs: alongside urban planning, economic development, social justice initiatives, and city services and show how they are all linked to one another.

Now is our chance. So here are the basics we need to get it right in this bold new future.

1. Cultural spaces: Let’s get digital (and nomadic)

Remember when we drew imaginary lines around our cultural organizations? That was so 2015. Back when we thought we needed to have concert halls and museums and never shall the two meet. Sidewalk Lab’s Toronto location is in the Port Lands — an area that has recently hosted two excellent examples of nomadic cultural programming.

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Last year, the Luminato Festival rewrote the rules of cultural programming and transformed an industrial power generating station into an art gallery, music festival, theatre venue and much more. The festival gave us a vision of what a 21st century arts institution should be — a “culture cave” where all art forms are welcome and diverse audiences meet.

Last month, Canada’s Design Exchange followed up by pulling off an eleven day festival in an abandoned soap factory. The event — EDIT — transformed the space into an ultramodern world where design, innovation and technology are the solutions to today’s grand challenges.

So let’s take note and move on from the dark ages of cultural planning that constricts arts organizations to silos and big, old (expensive) buildings. The cities of the future are embracing shared, multipurpose spaces and connect with citizens in their communities and around the world.

It’s time to put less emphasis on physical space and start using digital tools to connect our established cultural organizations with one another and to the emerging players. Let’s make use of the spaces we have and invest in connecting with citizens and audiences where they are — the internet.

2. Public art at the table not picking up the scraps

Most cities have a policy that a minimum of one percent of the gross construction cost of new buildings is contributed to public art. This is a terrible tradition to drag into the future.

It means developers can build what they want — which is usually as cheap and cheerful as possible— and rely on an artist to pretty it up. Some exceptional public art pieces have come from this program. But instead of treating public art as a band-aid for ugly buildings, the cities of the future need buildings that don’t need a sculpture to bring it to life.

Artists and designers need to be involved in projects from the onset. Not fighting for the scraps late in the game.

When artists, architects and designers collaborate, you get Copenhagen’s Superkilen Park. When an artist is allotted one percent to salvage mediocre spaces, you get Markham’s Perpetuation of Perfection.

Every business and community project that I’ve worked on drastically improved when artists and designers had a voice. Let’s amplify theirs.

3. It’s time to make a scene

Multidisciplinary pioneer artist Brian Eno says he’s not a genius. Neither was Mozart, Shakespeare, or Picasso. Instead, he sees successful creative people throughout history emerging from a scene. What he calls a sceneius.

A genius is the person with the big brain who effortlessly produces masterpieces. But when you actually look at the history of art, you see that the imaginary genius is part of a complicated scene of people who support one another and generate ideas together.

It’s time to move beyond the idea of the gifted genius and create an ecology where all cultural creators are empowered.

Cultural planners in the new era need to create the right environment, form connections, then get out of the way and watch the magic happen.

Digital tools are here to make this happen. Those same tools that created a globalized community can also be used to connect creative citizens to one-another in a place. Your city, for example.

They also give us real-time data about the scene, such as who the influencers are and which events are making the biggest impact. You can then delegate resources accordingly. Picking and choosing winners and losers is no longer the game we’re playing. The role of cultural scene facilitator has come and the internet is your best friend.

Call to action

So will the city of the future measure up to our expectations? The algorithmic age is upon us. Will we let it suck the life out of our public spaces? Is the arts and culture community ready to embrace the digital age?

The time has finally come for cultural planners to put on their big kid pants. Let’s be part of the ambitious future.

Matthew Thomas is the founder of City Proper, a Canadian cultural planning and communications team creating digital solutions for city makers.