Toronto’s Scrapped Smart City Reflects Distrust in Tech

An ill-fated proposal by Google-affiliate Sidewalk Labs to build a data-driven smart city in Toronto raised privacy concerns among locals. Disavowing the concept entirely, the city now plans to reimagine the site into a foliage-filled urban oasis that’s more in tune with actual human needs.

Quayside 2.0. Image courtesy Waterfront Toronto

Quayside may have been doomed from the outset. A high-tech neighborhood that was slated to rise along Toronto’s waterfront, Quayside was the brainchild of Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation arm of Google parent company Alphabet. Projected to create 44,000 jobs and $14.2 billion annually in GDP for Canada, the interconnected smart city would’ve housed residents in 12 timber high-rises designed by Snøhetta and Heatherwick Studio and with amenities such as robo-taxis, heated sidewalks, and autonomous garbage collection. But locals quickly raised concerns about the project’s privacy implications and painted a grim picture of a company galvanizing economic development for the benefit of Silicon Valley rather than Canada. How much data would Sidewalk Labs mine, and how would it be used? 

Years of heated public debate cast shadows over Quayside’s feasibility until, in May 2020, Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff penned a letter on Medium announcing the project would no longer go forward. The pandemic had made it “too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community,” he wrote. If the scathing comments on his post are any indication, most locals weren’t sad to see Quayside go. (“Tl;dr: They wouldn’t let us data mine an entire city for advertising so we bailed,” one user quipped.) The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, meanwhile, called the project’s demise “a victory for privacy and democracy.” 

Quayside 2.0. Image courtesy Waterfront Toronto

Local opposition to Quayside focused on privacy concerns rather than flawed urbanist ideals. There’s little tolerance for private-sector data collection in Canada, which recently introduced legislation that would fine companies for abusing personal data and order businesses to halt data collection if they abuse it. (Toronto also banned autonomous delivery robots from sidewalks.) 

A new proposal for the site, fittingly called Quayside 2.0, seems to spell the demise of the smart city in Toronto altogether. Prioritizing sustainable living and affordable housing instead of ubiquitous tech and automated perks, the refreshed concept features five foliage-filled towers that form an all-electric, zero-carbon community. It’s the vision of firms Alison Brooks Architects, Adjaye Associates, Henning Larsen, and landscape designers SLA, which Waterfront Toronto selected as the winners of a competition to reimagine the site in line with the needs of locals. The pendulum swing from data-driven to an urban Eden not only reflects a more human-centric community, but how attitudes have changed toward technology, from late-oughts optimism to skepticism fueled by rampant misinformation, online harassment, and privacy scandals.

Quayside 2.0. Image courtesy Waterfront Toronto

As writer Karrie Jacobs notes in MIT Technology Review, smart cities—and their focus on quantifying, controlling, and optimizing everything—have failed to take off because they eradicate what makes cities great in the first place. “New York and Rome and Cairo (and Toronto) are not great cities because they’re efficient: people are attracted to the messiness, to compelling and serendipitous interactions within a wildly diverse mix of people living in close proximity.” She goes on to explain that smart city technology should be used to shorten commutes, speed up the construction of affordable housing, and reduce carbon emissions, but its proponents tend to lose sight of human needs. 

“What is the vision that inspires people to want to live here, to work here, to raise their families and children and grandchildren here? What is it that inspires that?” asks Yung Wu, tech entrepreneur and CEO of the nonprofit MaRS Discovery District. “It’s not a smart city. It’s a city that’s smart.”

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