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Google’s Sidewalk Labs Walks Away from Toronto Smart City Project

Google affiliated company Sidewalk Labs announced today that it is no longer pursuing the development of Toronto’s Quayside smart city project. The controversial two-and-a-half-year venture comes to an end “as unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market,” said company CEO Daniel Doctoroff.

The Quayside development was announced about the time Canada unveiled its $125 million “Pan-Canada AI Strategy.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau predicted the high-tech New Toronto would become a test bed for the country’s growing community of AI researchers and startups.

Sidewalk Labs won the deal to lead and build a 12- acre high-tech smart neighbourhood on downtown Toronto’s eastern lakeshore in 2017 from Waterfront Toronto — an administrative body that partners the Government of Canada, the Province of Ontario and the City of Toronto. Waterfront’s Request for Proposals lauded the development opportunities for the huge tract of largely disused industrial land and its prime downtown location: “More than 300 hectares (750 acres) of land subject to future revitalization, presents a unique opportunity for government, private enterprise, technology providers, investors and academic institutions to collaborate on these critical challenges and create a new global benchmark for sustainable, inclusive and accessible urban development.”

A local Sidewalk team conducted research and community consultations, and the company formally presented its 1,524-page Master Innovation and Development Plan in June 2019. The ambitious plan overviews a 190-acre Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) district and presents a wide range of cutting-edge technologies tailored to Toronto, including intelligent sidewalks, autonomous service vehicles, new public transit and eco-friendly tall-timber residential developments.

The plan was met with applause for innovation, but opposition from some local groups and severe scrutiny from different government levels and officials.

Waterfront Toronto Chair Stephen Diamond wrote in an open letter, “IDEA District that covers a much larger area than the 12 acres of Quayside. Waterfront Toronto has told Sidewalk Labs that the concept of the IDEA District is premature and that Waterfront Toronto must first see its goals and objectives achieved at Quayside before deciding whether to work together in other areas.”

In response, Sidewalk quickly scaled back its scope, agreed to remove the term “urban data” which Waterfront had objected to, and pledged all personal information would be stored in Canada and that it would comply with all existing and future legislative and regulatory frameworks.

The public and private debates and controversies over data collection, data use, and digital governance however continued.

Toronto-based non-profit association the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) did not even wait to read the Sidewalk Labs proposal, filing a lawsuit over the project two months before the plan was published. Director Michael Bryant told the media “The Google-Waterfront Toronto deal is invalid and needs to be reset. These agreements are contrary to administrative and constitutional law, and set a terrible precedent for the rest of this country. Unlawful surveillance is wrong whether done by data profiteers or the state.” The CCLA today hailed the project’s cancellation as “a victory for privacy and democracy.”

Sidewalk Labs bowed out graciously: “Toronto is one of the world’s great centres of technological innovation, and nothing about this decision will in any way diminish that,” wrote Doctoroff. The Sidewalk statement also included a list of Quayside technologies and projects under development: urban mobility, next-generation infrastructure, community-based healthcare, robotic furniture, factory-made mass timber construction and so on.

With Sidewalk Labs’ departure and in the current environment, the future of these technologies, the Quayside land and Toronto smart city potential will all have to be reevaluated.

Journalist: Fangyu Cai | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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