Sidewalk Labs' Toronto Waterfront project was a flagship for the Smart Cities movement. Early in May 2020 it was abandoned. The germination, contestation and demise of the scheme will be mulled over by tech' giants, real estate developers, community activisits and urban researchers. What are the lessons? What do they imply for the way that the Smart Cities industry will operate in the future?
The idea of IDEA
In 2016 Sidewalk Labs set out to "Reimagine the City as a Digital Platform", a fusion of software platforms with urban design so that "digital technologies become a peer with concrete and with laws and regulation and taxes." The first announcement of the Toronto project came in 2017. Google's sister company Alphabet announced that its own sibling Sidewalk Labs would undertake a CAN$50M redevelopment of a 12 acre former industrial stretch of Toronto waterfront. It ticked all the boxes: not just a waterfront site, but also the best of digital knowhow to deliver jobs, affordable housing, and a "climate positive community" that would walk, cycle or use public transport, while also enabling "an eco-system where urban innovations can flourish", and, of course, it would "unlock the potential" of the quayside site. There would be tall buildings made from timber, streets of the future - flexible to switch from a rush-hour bus lane to a children's play street to a weekend farmers' market - self-heating pavements (winters in Toronto are horendously cold) and rubbish disposed of through underground chutes. And all the while the collection and processing of big data from smartphones, sensors and cameras would be the engine to a utopian urban future, telling new businesses where to set up a pop-up shop,or identifying where more hire bicycles are needed. Sidewalk would share its data with the city council. Jathan Sadowski writing in The Guardan commented at the time that there was "much at stake with this initiative...for cities globally".
The aim was for a head-on confrontation with the traditional city, and its economic, political, legal and social structures. Just as platform businesses like Uber and Airbnb had disrupted the taxi and hotel sectors, the new city would sweep away obstacles to new business start-ups, create new "producers" armed with little more than their smartphones, and, of course, replace old fashioned rules and regulations. For a discussion of these technologies as a business model see Kenney and Zysman. Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt said that Google was excited by "all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge."
By 2019 the project had been upscaled. Sidewalk Labs were looking to create an Innovative Development and Acceleration (IDEA) District, with public spaces and lots of timber build. There was a Masterplan that would see development start in the 5 hectare Quayside, then in Phase Two extend over a further 62 hectare area adjacent to it. The CAN£1.3billion scheme would create 44,000 jobs and CAN$4.3billion in annual tax revenues.
There were rumbles of discontent from the outset, particularly over issues of privacy and data capture. There were conflicts with the Province of Ontario and other politicians over Sidewalk Labs' desire, announced early in 2019, to get a share of the property taxes that the project would generate. There were also tensions with Waterfront Toronto, a quango created jointly at federal, province and city level, to oversee and regulate development in that part of the city. These resulted in the scale of the project being stripped back in October 2019 to 12 acres, and a ruling that developments would be subject to the regulation, evaluation and approval of public bodies. In addition, rather than Sidewalk Labs being the lead developer, it would partner with real estate developers chosen through a process of public procurement. The plan was criticised by some as being "tech for tech's sake". Public opposition had also grown.
Side Walk Away
On May 7 Sidewalk Labs announced that they were pulling out of the project, saying that "it no longer made sense to proceed". Amongst its continuing ambitions and legacies from the Toronto project was a digital masterplanning tool. The economic uncertainty globally, as well as in the Toronto real estate market , was cited as the reason for the decision.
This case could become a cause celebre of the Smart Cities industry. Did Sidewalk Labs over-reach themselves in the deal they were trying to drive? Might it have taken off had Covid 19 not shown up? Between 2016 and 2020 general unease about privacy and data mining mounted: did this tip the balance? Or was the project fundamentally flawed from the start? All of these are probably factors, and there could be more. At heart, the big tech' companies have a self-interested but reductionist view of the world: there is no problem that cannot be solved by technology, all that stands in the way is old-fashioned public regulatory bodies. Cities pose an irresistible challenge and almost infinite market opportunity. This means that the Toronto saga is unlikely to be the end of the story.
At one level, the case has thrown some light on the working of a private-public partnership, an institutional form usually shrouded by the mantra of "commercial confidentiality". Behind the usual vague and chummy exterior lie really deep political questions about who pays for what, who carries risk, who takes out the returns, and what say do citizens have in the whole process. In this and similar cases, these were overlain by issues of privacy and surveillance. As cities have been manoeuvered to become more competitive, and as the tech' companies have become the new Masters of the Universe, the flirtation between the companies and city councils has accelerated. What Toronto (with help from a global economic crisis) has shown is that while in many ways the tech' companies have the stronger negotiating hand by being so coveted, land and development rights and infrastructure provision still matter, and public authorities still have power in these matters.
It is also notable that Sidewalk Labs never really developed a convincing narrative about just what type of social experience they were trying to create on Toronto's waterfront. The Masterplan reads a bit like a thesaurus from an advertising agency - diversity, affordable housing etc. are all very well, but the imagery of a smart society seems like what Silicon Valley sees when it looks itself in the mirror. Maybe it would be different if they sat down with a real community, with all its precarity, and worked from that rather than starting with the technology.
For now, Big Tech' has sniffed out health care as the new field ripe for disruption; no surprise there. But with governments racking up debt during the pandemic and desparate for a quick fix recovery, deregulation is likely to figure prominently in their thoughts. Politically it is an easier bet than raising taxes or reimposing austerity. Expect welcome mats to be laid out for Sidewalk Labs and similar ventures once things start to pick up, and with a more compliant regulatory regime than the one they wrestled with in Toronto. Could planners, urban designers, community activists and software designers come together to find ways to capture through public good companies the potential benefits that Smart Cities can indeed offer?