Illustration: Ricardo Santos

Death of a Smart City

Alphabet bet big in Toronto. Toronto didn’t play along.

In October 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at a VIP-laden press event in Toronto to announce plans for a new neighborhood in the city to be built “from the internet up.” The big reveal was the builder: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. The mood was festive, optimistic. Schoolchildren were on hand with Lego models of future cityscapes, which Trudeau, flanked by Eric Schmidt, Alphabet’s then–executive chairman, and John Tory, the Toronto mayor, explored in a flawlessly staged photo op.

The prime minister spoke in earnest tones. Quayside, as the 12-acre waterfront project had been christened, would be “a testbed for new technologies,” he said, “that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities.” Not one to shy away from wholesome platitudes, he added, “The future, just like this community, will be interconnected.”

Then Schmidt rose to the lectern and said that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had long opined about “all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.” Chuckles reverberated through the crowd.

News that Alphabet had leaped neck deep into the smart city business lit up tech media for weeks. Sidewalk Labs’ renderings for the project — autonomous carts delivering packages and hauling away waste maneuvered in underground tunnels, while barefoot kids, butterflies, and birds cavorted in a Jetsons-meets-organic-living neighborhood at street level — flashed across the internet. Local news stations covered the project dotingly, picking up the Sidewalk Labs talking point that a network of sensors and other IT infrastructure embedded in the community would enable a new era of urban efficiency. Homes and workplaces in Quayside would “study occupants’ behavior while they’re inside them to make life easier,” said a reporter on one evening broadcast after the press event. Quayside would be “the first neighborhood of its kind,” he said, and — as if one superlative wasn’t enough — it would be “a community like none other.”

Sidewalk Labs’ rosy vision for Quayside, however, will not come to be. In May, the company announced it was abandoning the project, citing economic infeasibility. But what wasn’t mentioned was that the project had also become politically infeasible. The Quayside announcement inspired a groundswell of resistance, first among civil liberties activists, and then, eventually, among the ranks of Canada’s most prominent businesspeople, local civic leaders, and Toronto residents. Objections ranged from fears of Orwellian surveillance to Canadians’ general skepticism of the American culture of exceptionalism, so perfectly embodied by a Silicon Valley–designed smart city.

CEO of Waterfront Toronto Will Fleissig and CEO of Sidewalk Labs Dan Doctoroff pose on Lake Ontario; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Doctoroff. Photo sources: Lucas Oleniuk/Getty Images

The Quayside vision was born at the peak of the tech giants’ cultural prowess. Today, the era of techno-optimism seems all but dead. The demise of the most ambitious smart city project in North America, backed by one of the most powerful corporations on the planet, came at the hands of a small group of Toronto activists — and one disaffected tech billionaire. The story of their battle is a parable, not just for the smart city movement, but also for a growing sense that the tech industry, with its promise of data-driven solutions to structural and institutional problems, won’t save us.

Sidewalk Labs was founded in 2015 by Dan Doctoroff, a former Wall Street analyst and private equity managing partner who served as a deputy mayor of New York under Michael Bloomberg. Billed as an “urban innovation” startup and armed with the deep pockets of its parent company, Sidewalk Labs has incubated two urban planning tools and spun off a few subsidiaries of its own. Those include Coord, which sells curb management software to municipal governments, and Cityblock, which establishes health care clinics in low-income neighborhoods. Prior to Quayside, Sidewalk Labs’ most public-facing project was LinkNYC, a series of curbside kiosks across New York City’s five boroughs that provide free Wi-Fi and broadcast ads on their 55-inch screens — all while collecting a variety of data with the three cameras and 30 sensors housed in each kiosk.

But Quayside was to be the company’s magnum opus: transforming what had previously been an area east of downtown Toronto characterized by desolate parking lots and the graffiti-strewn foundations of demolished buildings into a living laboratory for an urban future in which technology would be embedded in every nook and cranny.

On one level, the vision was gadgety: Park benches might count how many people came to sit on them each hour, and curbside trash cans could alert the sanitation department when they were full. But the plans laid out in Sidewalk Labs’ initial proposal were far more comprehensive, encompassing an integrated digital layer for the full gamut of civic services, including urban planning, mass transit, road infrastructure, utility systems, social services, even health care. In a blog post, a Toronto tech entrepreneur who had interviewed for a job with the company said he was asked for his ideas about integrating technology with voting systems. Ultimately, the company hoped to develop a sort of urban operating system that could then be exported to other cities. Trudeau said he envisioned the technology spreading beyond Quayside across Toronto’s eastern waterfront and, ultimately, to “other parts of Canada and around the world.”

In October 2017, Sidewalk Labs signed an initial agreement with Waterfront Toronto, an agency with a 25-year mandate to redevelop 2,000 acres of the city’s downtown lakefront. Charged with overseeing some of the most strategic real estate in Canada, it is almost a government of its own, with the municipal, provincial, and federal governments each appointing four board members and asserting equal control over its affairs. The contract stipulated a period of planning and public engagement (originally set for one year, but later extended amid mounting resistance), during which input on the project would be sought.

I attended one of these meetings. Swarms of Sidewalk Labs employees — young, energetic, and dressed in blue T-shirts — milled around answering questions and hyping the project. A similar vibe filled a defunct fish processing plant adjacent to the Quayside site where the company set up an office with an attached visitor center of sorts. Painted the same blue as the Sidewalk Labs T-shirts, the visitor center showcased some of the flashier technologies proposed for Quayside, such as “building raincoats” that could spring out from a facade to make outdoor space more usable in inclement weather, and street pavers with embedded lights that would heat the pavement and could act as changeable lane markings. In conjunction with autonomous vehicle technology, these could allow lanes to shift according to real-time traffic flow. There were also boards where visitors could leave messages. Suspicion of the project emerged early. When I visited, the boards were heavy on criticism. “Is Google Big Brother now?” asked one commenter.

The backlash to Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project began almost as soon as Trudeau left the stage of the announcement event. Two weeks later, at the first community meeting for the project, anti-gentrification protesters gathered outside, while inside, a Q&A session with Doctoroff was at times confrontational. After he used the word “platform” to describe Sidewalk Labs’ venture in Toronto, one audience member rose to the microphone to express his concern.

“So, I’m just really curious,” he said, as to whether Doctoroff had any thoughts about “the power and wealth concentration that happens with platform ventures?” The crowd applauded.

“That is a fabulous question,” Doctoroff replied. “It’s a hard question to answer,” he continued, “but I will tell you that amongst ourselves we’ve talked about sort of different models of governance and ownership.” The intention, Doctoroff said, was for the Sidewalk Labs platform to be “open” to IT developers to “build things on top of it” — Google’s Android operating system is open in this way — “where, at the end of the day, they’ll be the beneficiaries of their intellectual capital and hard work, and not the platform itself.”

But with all the talk of sensors and data collection, it was privacy advocates who formed the largest and loudest contingent of skeptics.

Sidewalk Labs, no doubt anticipating this criticism, had retained the former information and privacy commissioner of Ontario, Ann Cavoukian, PhD, as a consultant-slash-surrogate. The month after the announcement, Cavoukian appeared on The Agenda, a popular Canadian talk show, along with Bianca Wylie, a Toronto activist and self-described “open government advocate” who was quickly emerging as the leading critic of the project. “The ability to track citizens, to engage in surveillance with the technology that they’re proposing — that’s not going to happen,” Cavoukian told listeners. “I can provide that assurance.”

But Wylie was dubious of the assurances of a paid consultant, and particularly concerned with the collection of “aggregate data… how the city is working, where people are using things, what the transportation flow is like.” She continued, “If a company is taking that data and using it to build products and services to then sell back to us, why isn’t that intellectual property and the value of that data ours as residents of the city?” She pointed out that tech companies’ plans for data collection in public space far outpaced citizens’ ability to comprehend the implications, much less governments’ ability to regulate the fast-growing smart city industry.

Wylie’s biggest fear about Quayside, however, was that Sidewalk Labs’ profiteering would come at the expense of democracy. Sidewalk Labs’ proposal encompassed many of the functions of municipal government, but without the accountability we expect from elected officials. Just as Google monopolizes search, critics feared a similar scenario in the smart city market. They argued that data collected in public space, where opting out isn’t an option, would herald a new age of surveillance. And the agreement between Toronto and Sidewalk Labs was proceeding without a single vote from a local resident.

“It is not innovative to be partnering with, basically, a monopoly,” Wylie told listeners. Cavoukian furrowed her brow. The show’s other guest, a former architecture critic at the Toronto Star and a Sidewalk Labs supporter, looked perplexed. Besides, said Wylie, the most intractable urban problems won’t be solved by Silicon Valley giants throwing technology at them. “Is A.I. and technology going to help us have a more equitable city?” she asked, cautioning against “tech solutionism.”

Sidewalk Labs’ scale model of Quayside is on display in Toronto, Ontario. Photo source: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The first wave of pushback against Sidewalk Labs had a grassroots, down-with-capitalism vibe — edgy, left-leaning urban affairs publications like Spacing churned out one skeptical story after another. Torontoist hosted a crowdsourced list of questions for Sidewalk Labs, which were mostly unanswered. But soon other voices, including from the C-suite, chimed in.

On a snowy night in 2018, I sat in a leather armchair aboard a private jet en route from Washington, D.C., to Waterloo, Ontario. Across from me was billionaire philanthropist Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO and co-chairman of Research in Motion, the Waterloo company that created BlackBerry phones. Tall and athletic, Balsillie has a reputation in Canadian business circles as a reserved but forceful character known to berate those who he disagrees with. For nearly two decades, Google had been a thorn in Balsillie’s side. Though it was the iPhone that first dethroned the BlackBerry from the top of the smartphone market, Android — used in a huge number of phones across price points — cemented BlackBerry’s descent into tech’s history bin. After several years of trying to keep the BlackBerry afloat, Balsillie retired from the board in 2012 and devoted himself to making the Canadian tech industry more competitive with Silicon Valley.

Everything about the Quayside project made Balsillie furious. First off, despite the fact that at least one Canadian consortium was shortlisted to compete with Sidewalk Labs for the bid, a U.S. company had ultimately been selected. Balsillie also held special ire for Waterfront Toronto and its then CEO, Will Fleissig, an American architect and real estate developer.

Balsillie described Waterfront Toronto leadership to me, variously, as “naive,” “insecure,” and “treasonous.” As the nation’s leading tech figure, he was brought on by the agency in 2018 as an informal adviser for the Quayside project, despite his hostility. I asked how that was going. “It’s going good,” he said, with a wry grin. “There’s a little run on Alka-Seltzer at the local pharmacy every time we have our chitty-chat.”

Just as the Sidewalk Labs project was taking shape, Balsillie was undergoing something of an ideological transformation. A longtime defender of the Canadian tech industry, he was evolving from a tech evangelist to tech reformist. Balsillie is a friend and collaborator of billionaire investor George Soros, and the two share a similar outlook of the tech industry. In a January 2018 speech in Davos, Soros characterized companies like Google and Facebook as a “menace” to democracy. “There could be an alliance between authoritarian states and these large data-rich IT monopolies that would bring together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with an already developing system of state-sponsored surveillance,” Soros said. “This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined.”

In early 2018, Balsillie also began to speak out aggressively against the tech industry. Testifying in Ottawa at a hearing about the Cambridge Analytica scandal in May that year, he told members of a parliamentary committee that “Facebook and Google are companies built exclusively on the principle of mass surveillance.” The danger of partnering with foreign companies like Sidewalk Labs was that “our data is subject to foreign laws, making Canada a client state,” he’d said.

“The ability to track citizens, to engage in surveillance with the technology that they’re proposing — that’s not going to happen”

Balsillie was also taking his grievances to the world stage. The night I joined him on his jet, he was flying home after giving a speech at the International Monetary Fund headquarters, just a few blocks from the White House. He’d told the roomful of economists that the prosperity of the 20th century, based primarily on the trade of tangible goods, had “created rising tides that lifted all boats.” But the rise of the intangibles economy, as he put it, driven by the battle to monopolize data, “lifts mostly a few yachts.” He spoke from experience.

Over the course of the project’s first year, the media narrative shifted from doting to questioning. One of the most inflammatory headlines came from an October 2018 op-ed Balsillie wrote in the Globe and Mail. Quayside “is not a smart city,” but a “pseudo-tech dystopia,” he wrote. “It is a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.” In another op-ed earlier that year, he blamed the situation on lawmakers’ “colonial supplicant attitude” toward the United States. Canada, he wrote, was at risk of “becoming not just a cheap tech branch plant economy… but also a client-state, politically and militarily subordinate.”

The project polarized Canadians between those who wanted elected officials to show Sidewalk Labs the door and those who thought the first camp was paranoid and unreasonable. Waterfront Toronto fell under immense pressure and promised more public meetings for residents to voice their concerns. In November 2018, just over a year after the project was first announced, Sidewalk Labs staff gave a slideshow to Alphabet about the headwinds they faced in Toronto. “The majority of the negative press coverage is rooted in an anti-global tech giant narrative being spun by… Jim Balsillie,” said the presentation, which was later leaked to the press.

While Sidewalk Labs mounted a massive PR campaign to garner public support — alongside an extensive though more discreet lobbying campaign in the halls of power — Balsillie leveraged his contacts within the Canadian political and business establishment to build opposition. By the winter of 2018, Toronto city council members began voicing concerns. A report from the National Research Council from December 2017, which journalists uncovered in June 2018, said that Canada was in danger of becoming a “data cow” for foreign tech platforms (though Sidewalk Labs was not explicitly mentioned). And Trudeau came under fire for appearing, in critics’ eyes, as more sympathetic to Silicon Valley interests than to Canadians’ — to the point of corruption, some believed.

A report from the National Research Council… said that Canada was in danger of becoming a “data cow” for foreign tech platforms

Many of those allegations were rooted in the original bidding process for the Quayside project. Though the Quayside project was open to bids from any qualified party, Trudeau’s language during the October press event suggested that the winner had been predetermined. “Eric and I have been talking about collaborating on this for a few years now, and seeing it all come together is extraordinarily exciting,” said Trudeau, speaking of Eric Schmidt, the Alphabet chairman. A spokeswoman for the prime minister told me that the comment referred to a general intent to collaborate and was not in reference to the Sidewalk Labs project in particular, but doubts lingered.

Further raising eyebrows, the press conference took place one day after the Waterfront Toronto board voted to approve their initial agreement with Sidewalk Labs, a complex legal document the board was given just the weekend to review. But the press conference looked meticulously arranged: In addition to the kids and their Legos, a slick promo video featuring staff of both Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs was screened. Did they pull that together the afternoon before? Did the VIPs from Ottawa and Silicon Valley drop everything to fly in on less than a day’s notice? Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs officials have insisted there were no improprieties in the selection process and assured me that the event would have been called off had the board not voted yes.

But Julie Di Lorenzo, a Waterfront Toronto board member who resigned in June 2018 in protest over elements of the Sidewalk Labs project, said the deal was “jammed inappropriately on the board with no time to review.”

In October 2018, Charlie Angus, a member of Canadian Parliament who was on the committee investigating Cambridge Analytica, sent a letter to Trudeau’s infrastructure minister, urging the government to “hit the pause button” on the Quayside project. “Data-opolies like Google have done little to reassure the public that they can be trusted without strong regulatory oversight,” he wrote. Moving forward without a more robust policy framework in place would risk “creating a 21st century company town,” he added — “a privatized surveillance city.” Angus, a member of the New Democratic Party, which leans left of Trudeau’s Liberal Party, also issued a statement a month later accusing the administration of being in bed with Alphabet, citing two government officials who had recently taken jobs with Sidewalk Labs. “This unhealthy culture of coziness between the Liberal government and Sidewalk/Google is not in the public interest,” wrote Angus, a former bass player who was once described in a National Post article as a “socialist punk rocker with a big heart.”

Then, in December 2018, the Ontario Auditor General published the results of a damning investigation into Waterfront Toronto’s handling of Quayside. Unearthed emails showed that the agency was already discussing a project with Sidewalk Labs in 2016 and that board members had been “urged — strongly” to approve the deal. One email even speculated about the fallout that might occur from Sidewalk Labs’ intent to “control ALL data.”

“It’s obvious the fix was in for Google,” Angus told me when I spoke to him at the time.

Three Waterfront Toronto board members were fired in the aftermath of the investigation. In addition to Di Lorenzo, several members of a panel of experts convened to advise the agency on the project had departed, along with Will Fleissig, the agency’s CEO, who left in mid-2018.

Even Ann Cavoukian, the Sidewalk Labs consultant who sparred with Wylie on The Agenda, switched camps. Upon tendering her resignation, she said, “I wanted this to become a smart city of privacy — not a smart city of surveillance.”

While the pro-Sidewalk and anti-Sidewalk camps fought a war of words in the press, most residents remained in favor of the project through early 2019. I lived in Toronto throughout this period, and many of my acquaintances found the talk about a surveillance state at Quayside a tad conspiracy theoryish. A poll in early February 2019 revealed that 55% of 600 Toronto residents supported the project, while only 11% were opposed. For critics of the project, this reflected a public ill-equipped to understand what a 12-acre futuristic neighborhood had to do with the future of democracy. A group of Toronto activists set out to educate them.

On a cold, windy night around this time, I arrived at the Toronto Media Arts Centre, in the city’s trendy West Queen West neighborhood, for a workshop billed as a “design jam” on the theme of “What is data?” meant to enlighten citizens to how data can be used and misused. I overheard conversations about the mountains of genetic data being amassed by ancestry websites and how Facebook maintains “shadow profiles.” Facilitators offered tricks for keeping the data overlords at bay. Pizza and art materials were provided.

The workshop was put on by the Digital Justice Lab, a group formed during Toronto’s Quayside crucible whose initiatives included a project to teach data literacy and a series of BIPOC-only events. Digital Justice Lab had an early partnership with an organization founded by Balsillie. “The idea is to build community capacity around digital rights,” said Digital Justice Lab’s founder Nasma Ahmed, the young woman at the workshop who sat behind a sticker-plastered laptop wearing a black head wrap, horn-rimmed glasses, and a nose ring. “People don’t even have the language to have a public conversation around data practices, privacy, smart cities.”

Pictured, left to right: Jim Balsillie, Nasma Ahmed, Charlie Angus, Bianca Wylie

Scandalous headlines about the Quayside project kept coming. On Valentine’s Day 2019, news broke that the company’s plans for Toronto were more extensive than had been disclosed. The company had previously floated the idea that the Quayside project could be expanded to the Port Lands, an adjacent 800-plus acres of derelict industrial land that is among the largest, most desirable undeveloped tracts of urban real estate in North America. The idea had been met with stiff resistance across the city — the Port Lands are nearly the equivalent of the city’s downtown core — and Sidewalk Labs had been forced to retreat from the idea. But documents obtained by the Toronto Star suggested that Sidewalk Labs was still negotiating for 350 of those acres, news that galvanized a large segment of residents.

About two weeks later, Ahmed joined Wylie and about 30 other community leaders, activists, and academics to launch the #BlockSidewalk campaign, the first coordinated effort to terminate the project. Ana Serrano, the president and vice chancellor of the Ontario College of Art and Design University and one of the group’s original members, described #BlockSidewalk as “a citizen-run volunteer organization that came together organically after the news of the land grab.” She told me recently, “It became clear for many in Toronto at that time, regardless of their background, that there needed to be some form of democratic process around how we build out that land.”

In June 2019, after several delays, Sidewalk Labs presented its much-anticipated master plan for Quayside. The 1,500-page plan — worth at least $2.9 billion in real estate and development projects — walked back the Port Lands expansion from 350 to 190 acres. In addition to building raincoats and tunnels for autonomous trash collection carts, a green energy system was proposed. The buildings would be constructed largely with mass timber — a compression of multiple wood pieces that can sequester carbon, considered a cutting-edge technology for structures more than a few stories tall — and Sidewalk Labs would fund a special factory to provide it. Great pains were taken to address concerns about data governance: Sidewalk Labs proposed that an independent “data trust” be established, a watchdog of sorts, to oversee the collection and management of all data collected, and the company again swore never to sell personal data, use it for ads, or monetize it in any way.

The plan was an olive branch to naysayers but did little to quell the rising tide of criticism. That spring, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association helped file a lawsuit against Waterfront Toronto, which alleged that the data collection proposed by Sidewalk Labs would infringe on constitutional rights. “Non-consensual surrender by the state to Sidewalk Labs and/or others of private data” could inhibit free speech and public assembly, the lawsuit said. “This curtails or negates critical freedoms in a democracy where collective behavior plays an important political and social role.”

The same day the master plan was released, the new board chair of Waterfront Toronto, Stephen Diamond, who had been appointed with a mandate to put the company on a shorter leash, issued an open letter stating that the master plan had to be dialed back even further. If Sidewalk Labs was unwilling to do so, the negotiations would be terminated. “The city of Toronto could get by without Sidewalk Labs, to be quite frank,” Diamond said that fall.

The activism — both at the grassroots level and top-down messaging from Balsillie — was working. A month after the master plan came out, a new poll showed that four times as many residents were now opposed to the project than just a few months earlier. Six out of 10 respondents said they did not trust Sidewalk Labs to collect data, with a similar number expressing doubt that the company would honor its pledge to not use data for advertising.

On Halloween 2019, Waterfront Toronto agreed to the new terms presented by Sidewalk Labs for the project. The scope would be reset to the original 12 acres. Data would be stored in Canada and subject to domestic law. Infrastructure development would be controlled by the agency rather than the company. And the government would “be entitled to a revenue stream on products and services piloted in Waterfront Toronto-facilitated testbeds, based on global net revenues.” Sidewalk Labs was given several months to revise its plan according to the new terms — Quayside was alive, but on life support.

Comment cards are on display as Sidewalk Labs unveils a conceptual scale model of the Quayside development in Toronto on June 24, 2019. Photo source: Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

As 2020 dawned, it seemed unclear whether Sidewalk Labs leadership was indeed willing to squish their lofty ambitions into those increasingly constricted 12 acres. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto both declined interview requests, but Helen Burstyn, the former Waterfront Toronto board chair who was one of the three board members fired by the province after the 2018 investigation, offered an inside perspective on negotiations between the two parties. While the agency attempted to maintain an appearance of unity with the company early on, Burstyn said that behind the scenes, the relationship was fraught from day one.

“There were a lot of things we [the board] were not comfortable with,” Burstyn told me recently, citing complaints from Sidewalk Labs “about how slow and bureaucratic we were. We can be, but we believe in good governance. Canadians are regulators, and our governments are very attuned to their responsibility — they didn’t realize how American they were in their approach.” The company was told, “You’re just going to have to live with it,” Burstyn said. “Sidewalk never fully appreciated that. They were always pushing for more.”

Many critics blamed Waterfront Toronto for a failure to rein in Sidewalk Labs, but Burstyn claims the agency’s intentions were more closely aligned with the naysayers than the naysayers realized. “I don’t disagree with anything that Jim Balsillie said. I just don’t like the way he said it,” Burstyn explained. “It wasn’t necessary to be insulting to the intelligence or integrity of people who actually do regulate these things.” She discounted theories about the government influencing the selection of Sidewalk Labs. “It became seen by some as sinister and prebaked,” she said, “but I don’t think that was actually the case.”

Burstyn argues that ultimately, she was fired as a sacrifice in order to move forward with the project. “It was a symbol. They had to do something, so they got rid of us. The well had been poisoned.”

“It was a symbol. They had to do something, so they got rid of us. The well had been poisoned”

To anyone paying attention, the writing was on the wall. Anthony Townsend, author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, worked as a consultant for Sidewalk Labs in 2015 and 2016. He is a proponent of smart cities, but as someone who studies the intersections of technology and urban planning, he is keenly aware that the cultures surrounding those professions do not always gel. Townsend told me he eventually walked away when his contract expired, in part due to philosophical disagreements with senior leadership. “Their lack of serious thinking about privacy and data governance had been a major concern of mine when I was there,” Townsend told me. “I pushed that agenda, but they didn’t see it as a priority.”

Townsend accused Sidewalk Labs of hubris. He said company leadership was largely stocked by people from Michael Bloomberg’s orbit, which created another sort of cultural schism. “They had a reputation for being too smart for themselves in New York, so when they got to Toronto, where the culture is much less brash and aggressive, they came off as doubly so.” Sidewalk Labs CEO Doctoroff is a “dyed-in-the-wool Wall Street guy,” said Townsend, adding that the company lacked a “participatory design approach” for Quayside. “It was a very, very top-down exercise. It’s inevitable today that those kinds of projects get rejected.”

I’d spoken with Doctoroff in December 2018 and asked him about one of the detractors’ top complaints: that Sidewalk Labs had not been transparent about its business model. He told me that Balsillie’s rhetoric about commercializing citizens’ data was “ridiculous” and “in bad faith.” While Doctoroff acknowledged that Sidewalk Labs hoped to generate revenue from “new technologies” developed in Toronto, he declined to elaborate when I pressed him for details.

The business model, he told me, was to “improve urban life” and to “be a catalyst in the creation of hopefully something extraordinary on the waterfront.” Doctoroff grew animated when I pointed out that this sounded more like a marketing pitch than a business model. It seemed reasonable to assume data would play a role in the technologies Sidewalk Labs was developing. “That is absolutely false!” he said, raising his voice. “Do not paint us with this brush because of our affiliation [with Google].” Sidewalk Labs, he said, “is not first and foremost about making money.”

The Waterfront Toronto board scheduled a final vote on Sidewalk Labs’ revised plan for June this year. But the vote never happened. On a cool spring day in early May, Wylie was sitting in her living room when she heard the news: Sidewalk Labs was pulling out. She ran upstairs to her family, shouting, “It’s over! It’s over!” she told me recently. “My kids were like, what’s wrong? I was like, no, it’s good!” For more than two and a half years, Wylie had devoted her life to the cause. “I was making calls and sending emails right up until this happened,” she said. “It was a major relief. I almost forgot what it felt like to not have to worry about it all the time.”

Sidewalk Labs cited the current economic climate as the catalyst for their decision. “I think Covid was the excuse, but their leaving was inevitable,” Burstyn told me. “I’m surprised it took them that long.”

Waterfront Toronto has been mum on its next steps for Quayside, but in an email, a spokesman said that “building a next generation community” remains “a key deliverable” for the agency. “While our long-term goal remains the same, we will take the time necessary to determine what our next steps will be,” he wrote. Before Waterfront Toronto embarks anew to develop “innovative and world-class solutions to urban challenges in a post-pandemic world,” he continued, “we will need to evaluate which of our original goals are consistent with these new realities.”

Burstyn was more circumspect in her assessment of Toronto’s smart city future. Post-Covid-19, would a hyperfuturistic development remain a priority? “Forget it,” she said. “I think we’re at a point where nobody is going to dream big. We’re going to dream practical.” Affordable housing was a top concern among Toronto residents before the pandemic, and in the economic fallout it will only grow as a priority, she said, as an example.

The rise and fall of Quayside coincides with the slow scaling back of other ambitious smart city ventures, such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi and Songdo near Seoul, Townsend said. “All these smart city megaprojects are now fairly conventional real estate projects.” Perhaps the barriers to melding cyberspace with physical space are taller than the techno-optimists realized.

Townsend, however, thinks the pandemic will accelerate the transition of internet technology from screens to the real world. Existing trends like telework and the shift to e-commerce suddenly seem deeply entrenched — changes in urban infrastructure are inevitable as a result, he said, and that new reality will likely be more automated. “We’re fast-forwarding five to 10 years into the digital future,” Townsend said. “So, all the dilemmas that people like Bianca Wylie have been raising alarm bells about” — he refers to Wylie as the Jane Jacobs of smart cities — “will become urgent issues that large numbers of people are going to be directly affected by. Once the public health situation stabilizes, hopefully we will see more effort put into dealing with all the scary sides of the surveillance state that we’re building.”

Perhaps the barriers to melding cyberspace with physical space are taller than the techno-optimists realized

The pandemic has introduced a new suite of data collection concerns — contact tracing apps, temperature scanning as a condition to enter restaurants, biometric identity verification at airports. Wylie worries the public is accepting these technologies as emergency measures, and without the realization that once such architecture is in place, it may be repurposed down the road for less noble purposes — such as the developing surveillance apparatus in China that critics fear spreading into the world’s weakened democracies. Wylie is now a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a think tank founded by Balsillie. “Thank god for Bianca Wylie,” Balsillie said the first time I met him, referring to her as “a hero.”

Less than a week after announcing Sidewalk Labs’ withdrawal from Toronto, Doctoroff participated in a webinar organized by the Urban Land Institute in which he contemplated the post-Covid-19 future of smart cities. The webinar is not publicly accessible, but according to an Urban Land Institute blog post about it, the company plans to apply the research and development that was underway for the Quayside project elsewhere — in places “where they’re committed to a heavy dose of innovation,” said Doctoroff, according to the blog post. Following their departure from Toronto, “we’ve been overwhelmed with interest from all over the world,” he added. Perhaps the smart city is not dead, but simply in the bardo, on its way to being reborn.

Doctoroff seemed to paint the very picture Wylie fears. According to the blog post, he “believes the crisis ultimately will create an even greater need for urban innovation — including the sort of data collection and analysis that had concerned some Toronto residents, which could become important tools for controlling the spread of future disease outbreaks akin to COVID-19.” The pandemic, then, could be a Trojan horse for data-gathering projects far beyond Sidewalk Lab’s wildest dreams for Quayside. Doctoroff likened it to New Yorkers who “adjusted to a network of surveillance cameras installed in lower Manhattan after the September 11 attacks.”

The public has grown far more sophisticated in its understanding of surveillance issues since then, however, and far more skeptical of the benevolent intentions of Silicon Valley. And with the defeat of Quayside, the activists, academics, and business elite that comprise the tech reform movement, if one could call it that, have a playbook for future battles.


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