Sidewalk Labs pulls the plug on smart city project

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Despite signs that a high-tech, sensor-laden neighbourhood was going to be a reality in Toronto’s east downtown waterfront after successful negotiations between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto in October, the Google-affiliated development company is pulling the plug on the entire project.

The news dropped this morning after Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk Labs’ chief executive officer, published a blog post citing “unprecedented economic uncertainty” from the COVID-19 pandemic as the primary reason behind the exit.

“And so, after a great deal of deliberation, we concluded that it no longer made sense to proceed with the Quayside project, and let Waterfront Toronto know yesterday,” he wrote.

Sidewalk Labs was chosen by Waterfront Toronto in late 2017 to build the city’s first 12-acre “smart neighbourhood” in Toronto’s Quayside region. The project has been met with fierce opposition ever since it was announced. Concerns over people’s data not being de-identified at the source, as well as the uncertainty over how a Civic Data Trust would oversee the collection of Quayside data, have been top of mind for months.

One of the most vocal critics of the project, #BlockSidewalk, was quick to respond to the announcement this morning and celebrated the project’s demise.

“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,” Julie Beddoes, one of the organizers with #BlockSidewalk said in a press release. “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.”

Thorben Wieditz, one of the opposition group’s organizers, pointed to the pushback from Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner on the project last year, as well as the lawsuit filed by The Canadian Civil Liberties Association against all three levels of government involved in bringing the high-tech neighbourhood to Toronto.

“The privacy element to the project was a huge concern for us,” Wieditz said. The fact that the 12-acre land at Quayside was only going to be a starting point for Sidewalk Labs’ plan to expand the company’s footprint to almost 325 hectares (800 acres) of the Port Lands, didn’t sit well with the group either, he added.