Here's why critics are cheering the news that Sidewalk Labs cancelled its Toronto project
After more than two-and-a-half years of dazzling Toronto with its big ideas and bold (sometimes too bold) plans for a brand new, high-tech "neighbourhood of the future" along the city's eastern waterfront, Sidewalk Labs is outie.
The Alphabet-owned urban innovation firm, a sister company to Google, had been selected back in October of 2017 by a consortium of municipal, provincial and federal government officials to develop a prime, 12-acre piece of land called Quayside.
Originally billed as a first-of-its-kind "smart city" prototype, Sidewalk promised a new kind of district for Toronto, one stacked with experimental technology that could eventually change the ways in which humans everywhere live, work, build, commute and make use of public space.
The company also estimated that it would create some 44,000 jobs for locals, generate $4.3 billion in annual tax revenues, and spur at least $38 billion in private sector investments by 2040.
Better still, they'd be building it to the tune of $1.3 billion on their own dime! That's right — free, high-end infrastructure, brought to you by one of the largest tech companies in existence. What could go wrong?
A lot, said critics at the time. From the moment the project was announced, data privacy experts have been pointing out various troubling ways in which the people of Toronto may inadvertently be expected to pay Alphabet back for its benevolent gift.
Concerns have been raised over the past two years about which kinds of data Sidewalk Labs be would gathering from citizens and how transparent the collection of that data would be.
Some critics worried about how personal information would be stored and used. Some warned that Toronto could lose autonomy by letting big tech into governance.
And then there was the fallout of Sidewalk Labs dropping a 1,524-page-long draft master plan for the project last June — one that unexpectedly proposed the creation of an entire district 16 times larger than what had originally been approved by government officials.
A week after this hit the Sidewalk of Sidewalk Labs, they walked away from Quayside. That’s good news for our privacy in Canada. Great credit to #blocksidewalk, and to our expert reports. We’ll upload them to our website asap. Stay tuned.— Canadian Civil Liberties Association (@cancivlib) May 7, 2020
A deal with Waterfront Toronto was eventually reached after Sidewalk scaled its plan back, but many found it hard to trust the company again after what was seen as a huge regulatory overstep.
Debate over the risks and benefits of letting a private company build, and potentially control, a new neighbourhood in Toronto was rampant until this morning, when Sidewalk Labs announced that it is effectively scrapping the project due to "unprecedented economic uncertainty" and Toronto's real estate market.
SIDEWALK LABS TEAM RETURNING TO GOOGLE HQ FROM TORONTO: pic.twitter.com/z2vystBryQ— RealChangeBot (@RealChangeBot) May 7, 2020
Many in the city were disappointed to learn that we won't be getting heated sidewalks or garbage-sucking robots just yet, but others see Alphabet pulling out as a definite win for Toronto.
"This is huge, we are sending a message to Silicon Valley on behalf of all those around the world who are fighting big tech in their cities," said Julie Beddoes of the advocacy group #BlockSidewalk in a release following Thursday morning's big announcement from Sidewalk Labs.
"The Quayside project got mangled down from an 800-acres vision of a surveillance state to a bid for an office building on a 12-acre site. We knew all along that Sidewalk can't realize its tech dreams on 12-acres alone, so this has been coming for a while."
As for what comes next, we'll have to wait and see.
Big tech likely won't be swooping in again to build out the Port Lands on our behalf, but Quayside remains a well-placed and highly-desirable piece of property that all three levels of government fully intend to make use of.
"While I regret that Sidewalk is no longer pursuing the Quayside project, I am heartened by the fact that Sidewalk and Google – which employs hundreds of residents - will both remain in Toronto and a part of our strong tech and innovation sector," said Toronto Mayor John Tory in a statement today.
"We have a tremendous new opportunity to develop Quayside... This is a key untapped area of the city's waterfront. I am extremely confident there are partners eager to undertake this endeavour," Tory continued.
"Our goal remains to ultimately build a neighbourhood focused on innovation in Quayside that will be the envy of cities around the world and a beacon for the future."
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