Google sibling Sidewalk Labs nixes Toronto smart city project


At one point, the project envisioned a high-tech urban center.

Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, on Thursday said it’s dropping its plans to build a high-tech urban hub on Toronto’s waterfront. 

The controversial project was billed as the city of the future, to be built in Toronto’s Quayside district, which had been soliciting plans for redevelopment. At one point, the plans envisioned buildings made of environmentally sustainable timber and flexible, movable wall panels. Sensors would’ve measured how public facilities are being used. The project, detailed in a 1,500-page master plan, was eventually pared back to a 12-acre plot. 

Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, cited the economic crisis spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for abandoning the project. 

“As unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan,” Doctoroff wrote in a blog post.

Sidewalk Labs, first announced in 2015, has faced blowback over the project every step of the way, as privacy advocates worry about data collection and the potential for mass surveillance. Two years ago, a handful of advisors, including Ann Cavoukian, former information and privacy commissioner for Ontario, resigned over privacy concerns.

The project also drew the ire of local activists. On Thursday, Block Sidewalk, a group that opposed the smart city plan, applauded the decision

“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,” wrote Julie Beddoes, one of the group’s organizers. “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.” 

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