THE WORLD’S MOST ambitious “smart city,” known as Quayside, in Toronto, has faced fierce public criticism since last fall, when the plans to build a neighborhood “from the internet up” were first revealed. Quaysiderepresents a joint effort by the Canadian government agency Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., to develop 12 acres of the valuable waterfront just southeast of downtown Toronto.
In keeping with the utopian rhetoric that fuels the development of so much digital infrastructure, Sidewalk Labs has pitched Quayside as the solution to everything from traffic congestion and rising housing prices to environmental pollution. The proposal for Quayside includes a centralized identity management system, through which “each resident accesses public services” such as library cards and health care. An applicant for a position at Sidewalk Labs in Toronto was shocked when he was asked in an interview to imagine how, in a smart city, “voting might be different in the future.”
Other, comparatively quaint plans include driverless cars, “mixed-use” spaces that change according to the market’s demands, heated streets, and “sensor-enabled waste separation.” The eventual aim of Sidewalk Labs’s estimated billion-dollar investment is to bring these innovations to scale — first to more than 800 acres on the city’s eastern waterfront, and then to the world at large. “The genesis of the thinking for Sidewalk Labs came from Google’s founders getting excited thinking of ‘all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge,’” explained Eric Schmidt, Google’s former executive chair, when Quayside was first announced.
From the start, activists, technology researchers, and some government officials have been skeptical about the idea of putting Google, or one of its sister companies, in charge of a city. Their suspicions about turning part of Toronto into a corporate test bed were triggered, at first, by the company’s history of unethical corporate practices and surreptitious data collection. They have since been borne out by Quayside’s secret and undemocratic development process, which has been plagued by a lack of public input — what one critic has called “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.” In recent months, a series of prominent resignationsfrom advisory board members, along with organized resistance from concerned residents, have added to the growing public backlash against the project.