While dogged by controversy, Toronto could have showcased exactly what a smart city could deliver, something that is important now more than ever.
I’ve spent most of the past week mulling over Sidewalk Labs’ abrupt decision to walk away from its Toronto Quayside project and what it means for smart cities. Was it a regrettable but shrewd move given coronavirus and a global economy in nosedive, as the company itself suggested, or was it admitting defeat in what became a controversial project, to put it mildly?
In Sidewalk Labs’ defence is the unprecedented challenge of dealing with coronavirus. Canada is in the middle of a gradual and highly cautious reopening. The global economy has been projected by the International Monetary Fund to contract by three percent this year - worse than during the global financial crisis of more than a decade ago. The figure increases to a deeply worrying 6.2 per cent for Canada. The world in which Sidewalk Labs launched the Quayside project has gone and likely forever.
That said, the Quayside project was dogged by controversy with citizens launching a Block Sidewalk campaign group, legal action launched over citizen rights, and even one of its advisers resigning over privacy fears. The Google sister company’s ambitions were also drastically slashed from transforming 190 acres to only 12. Hardly ringing endorsements.
As you might expect Torontonians are split on the decision. Martin Regg Cohn in the Toronto StarToronto Star described it as a missed growth opportunity to tap into Google’s "peerless infotech and innovation". Whereas in a scathing albeit highly entertaining read, fellow Star columnist Juan Luis Suarez concluded that "Sidewalk Labs was the best thing we never had".
My view is that, while they were clearly important and impactful factors, the coronavirus and the economy did provide Sidewalk Labs an easy exit to a project whose ambitions had to be heavily scaled back amid an increasingly sceptical citizenship.
That said, it’s a missed opportunity for Toronto to showcase exactly what a smart city could deliver; urban mobility projects driven by citizens’ movements, next generation infrastructure, and community-based healthcare, something that is important now more than ever.
It seems unlikely that Sidewalk Labs will shelve its smart city plans completely and a more compliant city will eventually benefit from the likes of all-electric neighbourhoods and robotic furniture. Some Torontonians may live to regret the ferocity of their opposition.
Sidewalk Labs was a hugely impressive project - one whose ambition showcased just how cities can be transformed by technology to the betterment of their citizens. But, at present, it also serves as a cautionary tale. The most impressive smart city projects are those built according to the citizens’ needs. But these projects must ensure its citizens are firmly on board with their aims. Projects should be built from the ground up, rather than the top down.
What I’m reading: