Sidewalk Labs pulls the plug on smart city project

This story has been updated since the morning of May 7 to include additional comments from Ann Cavoukian, as well as comments from Toronto Mayor John Tory


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.

Sidewalk Labs first presented a 1,500-page draft master smart city plan for the government-owned stretch of Toronto’s eastern waterfront last summer. Later that year, The Globe and Mail broke a story about a document called the “yellow book” that included plans – which predated Sidewalk’s relationship with Toronto by more than a year – that would have given Sidewalk the ability to track people’s movements and even levy its own property taxes.

Ann Cavoukian, Sidewalk Labs’ former advisor and executive director of the Privacy & Security by Design Centre, spoke briefly with IT World after the news this morning and said the announcement doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

“They really fell short of the privacy implications,” she said, citing her exit as Sidewalk’s advisor in 2018. She added that there were some promising signs after October’s negotiations between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs that hinted at the possibility of some common ground being found. It was during those negotiations, she said, that Sidewalk Labs agreed to de-identify information at the source. “Maybe it was too much for them,” she indicated.

Cavoukian, who became a consultant for Waterfront Toronto after leaving Sidewalk Labs, said Waterfront Toronto was “100 per cent” committed to privacy.  She told the publication that she is confident that Waterfront Toronto would be willing to breath new life into the project, or another one of this size, once the city opens up again after COVID-19. Cavoukian said the organization will likely be in a better position to make decisions on projects this large thanks to the latest experience with the Quayside Project.

“They’ll be able to, very firmly from the start, lay down the expectations around de-identification at the source for companies making bids next time,” she said. “You have to build trust because there’s such a huge trust deficit right now.”

The numbers appear to back this notion up: Only 53 per cent of Canadians trust the core institutions of business, government, media and non-governmental organizations, according to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer report. That marks a three per cent decline from last year.

Toronto Mayor John Tory issued a statement today, saying he was disappointed about the project’s downfall. He did, however, highlight a silver lining.

“The Sidewalk experience helped us advance our approach both to the need for improved waterfront transportation and digital governance,” he wrote.

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Alex Coop
Alex Coop
Former Editorial Director for IT World Canada and its sister publications.

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