When Google’s brother Sidewalk Labs announced in 2017 a $ 50 million investment in a redevelopment of part of Toronto’s waterfront, it almost seemed too good to be true. One day, promised by Sidewalk Labs, Torontonians would live and work in a 12-acre former industrial site in wooden skyscrapers, a cheaper and more durable building material. The streets paved with a new type of light paver would allow the development to change design in seconds, able to accommodate families on foot and autonomous cars. The waste would travel through underground falls. The sidewalks would heat up. Forty percent of the thousands of apartments planned would be reserved for low- and middle-income families. And Google’s sister company founded to digitize and tech urban planning would collect data on all of this in a quest for a perfect urban life.
On Thursday, the dream died. In one Way Post, Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said the company will no longer continue development. Doctoroff, a former deputy mayor of New York, pointed to the Covid-19 pandemic. “With unprecedented economic uncertainty around the world and in the Toronto housing market, it has become too difficult to make the … project financially viable without sacrificing the essentials of the plan,” he writes.
But Sidewalk Labs’ vision was in trouble long before the pandemic. Since its inception, the project has been criticized by progressive activists concerned about how the Alphabet company would collect and protect data, and who would own the data. Meanwhile, Ontario’s Conservative Premier Doug Ford wondered if taxpayers would get enough money from the project. New York-based Sidewalk Labs has struggled with its local partner, the waterfront redevelopment agency, to take ownership of the intellectual property for the project and, most importantly, its funding. Sometimes its operators seemed baffled by the vagaries of Toronto politics. The project had missed deadline after deadline.
The partnership took a bigger hit last summer when Sidewalk Labs released a splashy and even more ambitious 1,524 page master plan for the lot that went far beyond what the government had planned and for which the company has committed to spending up to $ 1.3 billion for Completed. The redevelopment group wondered if any of Sidewalk Labs’ data collection and governance proposals were even “in accordance with applicable laws.” He backed down from a suggestion that the government commit millions to expand public transportation in the region, a commitment, the group reminded the company, which it could not take alone.
This voluminous blueprint can still be useful, said Doctoroff in his blog post. Sidewalk Labs gave serious consideration to civic data management during the two and a half year project. As early as March, leaders of Sidewalk Labs discussed with WIRED how the company could approach the issue transparently. (Critics have said that even these efforts have not gone far enough.) Doctoroff says the work – and the work of Sidewalk Labs’ portfolio companies, which seek to address various urban mobility and infrastructure issues – will continue .
However, the end of the project raises questions about the “smart cities” movement, which seeks to integrate cutting-edge technological tools into democratic governance. Buzzwords, buzzwords when the saying “data is the new oil” generated fewer eye rolls during the techlash. Cities and their residents have become more wary of what Silicon Valley businesses can do with their data. In theory, one way to solve this type of project is to start from the ground up. “The next time it is done by Sidewalk Labs or any large technology company that wants to reinvent the future of neighborhoods, it will be done in close communication with the communities,” says Daniel O’Brien, who studies the implications for big data research and policy at the School of Public Policy at Northeastern University.
Ironically, the end of the Toronto project comes when data collection and monitoring are seen as key tools to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Google has jointly developed Apple technology for smartphones that will automatically follow meetings of infected patients with others. The companies say the data will only be saved anonymously and that the contact tracing scheme could eventually free most Americans from shelter there. The world is on the verge of a major experience of what can and should be done with data. For the time being, an abandoned ribbon from Toronto will not be part of it.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.