Skip to main content
opinion

Construction equipment remains parked on waterfront work site after Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs announced it pulled out of its smart city in Toronto on May 7, 2020.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

The two-year dance between Toronto and the Google sister company Sidewalk Labs is over. A 12-acre site where Sidewalk had promised to build a smart-city neighbourhood is still empty.

Now the government agency in charge is promising to try again to build it out – but with less tech and less dazzle.

“We’re going to build a smarter city, not necessarily a smart city,” Stephen Diamond, chair of the board of Waterfront Toronto, said in an interview on Tuesday.

The agency announced that it will seek a new partner to develop the site, known as Quayside. It hopes to have a deal by the summer of 2021. And the focus on technology is much diminished.

This is welcome news. It means Waterfront Toronto – a three-government partnership meant to do land development – is back to what it’s good at, and what it ought to be doing.

WT’s dalliance with Sidewalk did not go well. Waterfront chief executive Will Fleissig invited Sidewalk to be “innovation partners” on a wide-ranging attempt to make Toronto a leader in combining digital technologies and urbanism.

The deal (at first) was a complicated and unorthodox partnership, with unclear goals. Sidewalk was a private company with a lot of baggage that was fumbling around for its own purpose and business model. The process generated a lot of publicity for Toronto, good and bad, and also included many half-baked ideas that make no sense here. If anywhere.

That’s all finished now. Waterfront Toronto’s public statement was vague, talking about “a next-generation community that addresses the most pressing urban issues of our time.” But Mr. Diamond said the organization will be pragmatic and focus on the issues that matter right now, in the time of COVID-19: affordable housing, elder care and boosting the economic recovery of the city and the province. That could mean a specific focus on supporting small retail businesses, he said.

Mr. Diamond suggested the neighbourhood could include a building that combines different types of seniors’ housing, from independent to assisted living, integrated physically and organizationally.

“There will be innovation,” Mr. Diamond said, “but it won’t be data-driven.” He cited architectural design innovations, including the “passive house” standard of energy-efficient design; and the use of “mass timber” for large buildings, but not on the world-beating scale that Sidewalk promised (and failed) to deliver. “We want to see a project that can be implemented in a realistic fashion without requiring major regulatory change,” Mr. Diamond said.

This will mean some trade-offs between the present and the future. Mr. Fleissig and Sidewalk proposed to use Quayside (and the surrounding area) as a sort of research and development lab. I asked Mr. Diamond: Will Waterfront continue to take that approach, trying things out that could have a long-term payoff?

“Frankly, the problem with the previous proposal” – Sidewalk’s – “was that the long-term payoff wasn’t evident,” he said. “The original commitments on tall timber were that it would be less expensive, and create more affordable housing. It turned out that it was much more expensive.

“Long-term commitments are great, but if they cannot be put into action, they’re not worth as much.”

Those are wise words. Mr. Diamond sounded lawyerly and measured, as he usually does, but I thought I could hear some frustration with the extended circus that was the Sidewalk process.

If so, those feelings are justified. Sidewalk’s ambitions toward surveillance capitalism aren’t its only problem. The company promised many ideas, ranging from practical to pie-in-the-sky, and tried to tie them together with some smooth rhetoric and tasteful graphic design.

But city building is a messy business. Architecture, planning and politics are complex; technology can’t unpack all of the knotty problems that cities face. Now we’ll see how good our governments can be at bettering our world using familiar tools.