What does Sidewalk Labs’ setback mean for the smart city?

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.

 

Symons points to the DECODE project, on which Nesta partnered, as providing an alternative model for how to bring citizens into the planning process. ‘DECODE sought to give people control of their personal data. Through our local pilots, we showed that it is possible to avoid the pitfalls met by Sidewalks Labs. The pilots put the citizen at the heart of technology through co-creation approaches.’ For Symons, Quayside serves as a cautionary tale for similar developments who choose not to build in this concept of a digital ‘commons’ from the outset.

It was unclear whether we would be customers or citizens of Quayside

Liam Young, founder of the think tank Tomorrows Thoughts Today and author of Machine Landscapes: Architectures of the Post Anthropocene, concurs: ‘Quayside was a Trojan horse, an experiment in radical surveillance and AI governance presented as a gesture toward community. It was unclear whether we would be customers or citizens of Quayside.’ Young points out quite how incongruous the project appeared at a time when the conversation around digital rights and data as a public good has gained supremacy. ‘The days when access to the network was something we might opt into are long gone and all of the “internet-first” systems that Google was putting in place in their city should now be thought of as public infrastructure, a utility as fundamental as water, power and sewage,’ he argues.

It’s also worth reflecting on whether organizations such as Alphabet and their proxies have either the level of patience or the right ethos to engage in large-scale urbanism. ‘The gleeful, fail-fast mentality of the tech industry with its culture of beta launches and hackathons always sat at odds with the slow art of city-making,’ says Christine Murray, founding director of The Developer. ‘As anyone who has visited a failed innovation in urban planning (see: most Olympic Games), the main problem with experimental neighbourhoods are their permanence. A line of code can be rewritten, a website can be tweaked or deleted, but the legacy of a bad place is hard to unravel.’

There were elements of the Quayside proposal that did have broad support, however. Murray joins many other architects and environmentalists in lamenting the loss of what would have been a significant showcase of cross-laminated-timber (CLT) building in an urban context. These included plans for the world’s tallest CLT tower at 35 storeys. The site was also slated to include an accommodation mix of which an admirable 80 per cent would have been affordable housing. No small feat in what is, according to the annual Demographia International Housing and Affordability Survey, one of the most expensive housing markets in the world. But, as Murray points out, ‘people in need of low-income housing should not be forced to live in a laboratory, and certainly should not forfeit their data for the privilege.’

The demise of Toronto’s Quayside project reminds me of a Cedric Price quote: “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”

Toronto’s waterfront will now be revitalized along different principals, and Ramscar is optimistic that ‘the opportunity still remains to balance stakeholder interests and to deliver on an exciting vision for urban innovation.’ He also acknowledges that developments with any scale of ambition often go through several lifecycles before realization, signing off on the note that ‘it sometimes takes losing a deal to get it done.’ In contrast, Murray shares a sense of relief with the multitude of Torontonians who have actively campaigned against Sidewalk Labs’ involvement in the future of their city. ‘The demise of Toronto’s Quayside project reminds me of a Cedric Price quote: “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”.'

sidewalklabs.com

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