Google's smart-city plan is no more

Googles smart-city plans are no more

Sidewalk Labs, a part of Google’s Alphabet company, has suddenly cancelled an ambitious (or, as many critics had it, “overweening”) plan to transform a largely derelict section of Toronto’s waterfront some 1.5 kilometres east of the Downtown district into a “super-smart city”. They have now used the ‘unpredictability of COVID-19’ excuse, they have now abandoned their plans.

As far as the project’s ever-declining band of supporters is concerned, it is a time of “great sadness and disappointment” as the brainchild of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt becomes no more. However, there has been a countervailing cry of “good riddance” from many dissenters who viewed the project as a example of corporate hubris and a substantial threat to privacy amid rising costs.

The plan was to take the rundown area and turn it, “from the Internet up” into “Quayside”, which the company PR machine described as “the world’s most technologically advanced neighborhood” that would be “a blueprint for the 21st-century urban neighborhood.” Now however, for an indeterminate period into the future, the site will remain a Google-free dockside area looking on to Lake Ontario.

In a blog post the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, Daniel Doctoroff, said that the company will “no longer pursue the Quayside project“, because the “unprecedented economic uncertainty which has set in around the world” [thanks to the pandemic] has made it “too difficult” to carry it through. 

Sidewalk’s flashy 2017 brochures and marketing material made a fuss of flashy technologies including wooden framed office and residential tower blocks that would have high tech accessories that would protect the buildings from rainstorms and snow. There would be heated sidewalks to keep them ice-free in winter and refuse collection by robots and autonomous vehicles.

They didn’t cut much ice with Waterfront Toronto which described several aspects of Sidewalk’s proposals as “irrelevant”, “unnecessary” and – best of all – “frustratingly abstract.” Then the influential US venture capitalist, Roger McNamee, who was an early investor in Google, publicly warned that technology companies simply can’t be trusted safely to manage the data they collect on residents. In a letter to the Toronto City Council he wrote, “The smart city project on the Toronto waterfront is the most highly evolved version to date of surveillance capitalism” stating that Google will “use algorithms to nudge human behaviour” to favour its own business and profits.

He also added, “No matter what Google is offering, the value to Toronto cannot possibly approach the value your city is giving up. It is a dystopian vision that has no place in a democratic society.” His criticism was echoed by the Jim Balsillie, the co-founder of Research in Motion, the company behind the once ubiquitous BlackBerry devices who called Sidewalk’s project “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues”.

Initially, Google wanted control over all data collected in Quayside as well as a share of development costs, property taxes, unspecified benefits accruing from increased land values and rents. However, the Toronto authorities announced, despite Sidewalk’s later assurances that data would not be shared with third parties, “We believe that data collected in public space must be overseen and closely controlled by an independent and publicly accountable Data Trust, not Sidewalk Labs, Google, or any private company.”

In a brief statement, the Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, said “While Google’s approach was unpopular in Toronto, its ambitious proposals and the  long-running saga around the project were good for the profile of smart cities. If Toronto’s smart city plans collapsed because Google’s pockets weren’t deep enough, it’s highly possible other vendors will now question whether they can make money out of smart cities projects given the bleak economic outlook.”

Google invested about US$50 million in Quayside, Google’s pockets are probably deep enough to buy entire countries.