Toronto – Once destined to be the most extensive application of the smart-city principal yet seen, at the start of May Sidewalk Labs abruptly walked away from Quayside, its project to transform a stretch of Toronto’s waterfront.
A subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., Sidewalk Labs was uniquely positioned in terms of both financial and intellectual resources to realize such an ambitious plan, one that involved the creation of a new neighbourhood ‘built from the internet up’ and that the organization described as ‘a testbed for emerging technologies, materials, and processes’. What that would have meant in real terms ranged from heated sidewalks to automated garbage collection, all mastered by an array of sensors that could monitor the movement of people and inform long-term urban planning.
Many Torontonians didn’t take kindly to the idea of taking part in that experiment, however. Local opposition was high, especially regarding what personal information would be gathered and how it would be utilized. The perception by some of one of the world’s largest technology companies enacting a land-and-data-grab solidified last June when Sidewalk Labs pitched a masterplan of 190 acres – 16 times what was originally discussed with the municipality. This was then scaled down to 12 after pushback from Waterfront Toronto, the organization overseeing redevelopment of the area. Other concessions were made regarding data storage and processing, the value at which Sidewalk Labs could acquire land and the level of access Canadian companies would have to patents generated by the project.
‘They had to work with us and not be adversarial if they were going to be successful,’ said Stephen Diamond, chair of Waterfront Toronto, at the time. ‘They basically ceded to the most important threshold issues that we needed to get resolved to move forward.’
It now looks like the Sidewalk Labs team might have, on reflection, decided they’d ceded too much. Suspicions surrounding the future of the project were raised during Alphabet’s April earnings call, when CEO Sundar Pichai hinted that outlier projects such as Quayside might be culled as a cost-saving measure. This was seemingly confirmed by Sidewalk Labs’ chief executive Dan Doctoroff in a Medium post announcing Quayside’s termination: ‘As unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan.’ However, critics have been quick to suggest that market conditions are only half the story, and that the pandemic has provided a useful smokescreen with which to end a development that had become too contentious, and whose aspirations no longer matched Alphabet’s own.
Having dominated the conversation around how future cities might be built for the last three years, what does the Quayside project’s ending mean for how we think about technologically enhanced urbanism going forward, and for Toronto?
The scheme threatened to derail long before the COVID crisis
Despite its apparent failure, Jon Ramscar, executive vice president and managing director of CBRE Canada, remains sanguine about Quayside’s impact. ‘The smart city was a great vision for Canada’s future in technology and innovation,’ he tells us from his base in Toronto. ‘It was an ambitious goal with good intentions that created a lot of hope for the city.’ For others, any latent positives of the proposed smart neighbourhood were far outweighed by concerns as to Sidewalk Labs’ ultimate intentions. ‘A lack of transparency and engagement as plans were drawn up, coupled with fears about the governance of data, meant the scheme threatened to derail long before the COVID crisis,’ explains Tom Symons, head of government innovation at Nesta.