Slicker cities

SideWalk Labs ditches smart city plan for Toronto citing COVID-19 cost-cutting

The Alphabet subsidiary had big dreams for Toronto's eastern lakeshore, but the project had haters from the start.

After two and a half years, Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs is pulling the plug on its Quayside project, its ambitious and controversial plan to reimagine Toronto's eastern lakeshore. While locals have strongly protested against Sidewalk Labs' dream of a smart city over the past few years, it wasn't mass criticism that eventually tanked the Quayside plan. COVID-19-sparked cost-cutting led to the waterfront project's eventual demise.

In a Medium post announcing the decision to end the Quayside project, founder Daniel Doctoroff wrote, "The Quayside project was important to us, and this decision [to no longer pursue it] was a difficult one. We are grateful to the countless Torontonians who contributed to the project, and for the support we received from community groups, civic leaders, and local residents."

Not everyone was a fan — While Sidewalk Labs presented itself as an altruistic urban development venture, local critics blasted the premise as urban profiteering and took strong issue with — among other things — the lack of transparency about Sidewalk Labs' business model and citizen data collection method.

Fury led to downsizing the dream — In 2019, opponents even started #BlockSidewalk, highlighting their deep resentment against the Google sister company's data-hungry and the sensor-filled idea of urban living. The backlash and fury were so fierce that Sidewalk Labs had to ultimately ditch its original plan for a 350-acre plan and settle on a 12-acre patch. Here are a few renderings of the city from Sidewalk Labs.

Sidewalk Labs

Don't treat a city like a computer — While there's undoubtedly a need to reimagine and rebuild our cities to be more human-centric and better equipped to contend with challenges like growing populations, transportation, sprawl, and gentrification, smart cities aren't necessarily the answer.

Treating cities like computers and trying to "optimize" urban living through tech acceleration and disruption isn't always wise and reflects how limited Silicon Valley's approach is. Thinking of cities through metrics like Key Performance Indicators will not cure the problems posed by inadequate health care, weak social services, faulty public transportation, or steep and violent inequalities within class, race, gender, and other demographics.

The obsession with thinking of cities as information processing machines over-simplifies the nature of urban living. It is reductionist and uninspiring. A more realistic and pragmatic approach would be to provide full resources and backing to existing municipal agencies, education departments, medical facilities, companies, and other units. Of course, Doctoroff doesn't mention any of these points in his farewell post, but hopefully, Sidewalk Labs learned a lesson or two over the past few years and they'll come to fruition somewhere else.