Can anyone blame Sidewalk Labs for bailing on Toronto? Almost from the start, the urban-tech company has been beset by naysayers. They said the company’s plan to lead a smart-city experiment on a patch of waterfront would expose us to all manner of dangers.
Sidewalk would steal our data with sensors in the pavement and sell it to the highest bidder. Sidewalk would undermine our privacy and threaten our civil liberties. Sidewalk would gobble up much of the waterfront to build its Googly empire. Sidewalk would run roughshod over local authorities, creating a corporate principality accountable to no one.
This week, citing the economic blow back from the coronavirus, Sidewalk walked out like a harried spouse escaping a bad marriage. It had ample grounds for divorce. After at first welcoming the new company, Toronto turned haughty, remote and hypercritical. Every move Sidewalk made was subjected to withering scrutiny. Not only its plans but its motives were considered suspect.
Because it was an offspring of Alphabet, Google’s parent, it must be plotting to mine the personal information of Torontonians for gold. Because it came from south of the border, it must be an interloper bent on shipping its profits stateside. Because it was a (horrors) private enterprise, its only motive must be to (gasp) make money. All the fear and loathing that has built up against Big Tech in recent years was focused on this project.
Sidewalk tried mightily to convince doubters that it was not scheming to take over the world. It offered all sorts of guarantees on privacy and data collection, eventually even agreeing that data governance would be handed over to Waterfront Toronto and the governments that oversee it. Not good enough, said the critics. It invited residents to lavish consultation sessions where they could ask questions and express opinions. Mere pandering, said the skeptics. It abandoned a proposal to give the project a bigger footprint so it could try out its ideas on a larger scale. About time, they said.
Sidewalk chief Dan Doctoroff, an impressive former deputy mayor of New York, gave many speeches and interviews to attempt to persuade Toronto that he was sincere about wanting to make the city a test bed for urban innovation. Yes, Sidewalk wanted to make money; it was not a charity. But it wanted to do so by using technology to turn cities into cleaner, healthier and more equitable places. Toronto, with its booming tech sector, semi-developed waterfront and famous diversity, was the ideal place to try. Just a cheesy sales pitch, the cynics said. Small wonder that Mr. Doctoroff is calling it quits.
Toronto’s leaders are making out that Sidewalk’s departure is no great loss. Mayor John Tory said he was certain that others would be eager to take Sidewalk’s place. Premier Doug Ford said he was equally sure that another developer would do “something spectacular” on the vacated waterfront plot.
In fact, it is a big loss indeed. Toronto has lost a wealthy, ambitious partner that would have invested a great deal of energy and money in the city and its waterfront. It lost a backer for a badly needed new transit line to the waterfront, which has languished on the drawing board for years. It lost the chance to help develop the technologies that will transform cities in the coming decades, from timber construction to ultratight, energy-efficient buildings.
Worst of all, it lost some of its sheen as a dynamic city that embraces change and welcomes investment. Amazon put Toronto on its short list for a second headquarters. Would it do so now, after watching the Sidewalk project’s death by a thousand cuts? Toronto’s recovery from the impact of the pandemic depends at least in part on its reputation as a great place to do business. That reputation has been dulled by this fiasco.
The Toronto that showed its face during the Sidewalk saga was a smug, self-satisfied, suspicious, weakly led rather provincial town that is afraid of the big and bold and is quite happy with the second rate. It is not an attractive look for a city with hopes of being a top-tier global metropolis.
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