After Years of Big Promises, Sidewalk Labs Abandons Its Smart City in Toronto

The Google affiliate tried to sell Canada's biggest city on robotic package delivery and heated sidewalks alongside unprecedented data collection, and now it's gone the way of many an abandoned Google project.
May 7, 2020, 4:23pm
After Years of Big Promises, Sidewalk Labs Abandons Its Smart City in Toronto
Flickr: VV Nincic

In 2017, Google sister company Sidewalk Labs waltzed into Canada's largest city with a plan to build a data-collecting "smart city" in Toronto that set off years of unproductive consultations, PR disasters, community resistance, and privacy concerns from high-profile experts.

Now, the plan has been unceremoniously abandoned by the company that once pushed it so hard, a characteristic of many failed Google-related endeavors.


In a blog post on Thursday, Sidewalk Labs CEO and face of the project Dan Doctoroff alluded to financial uncertainties due to the coronavirus pandemic that led to the decision to abandon 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 we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community,” Doctoroff said.

When reached for comment, Sidewalk Labs spokespeople directed Motherboard to Doctoroff's blog post.

The goals and scope of the Sidewalk Labs proposal for Quayside, the 12-acre stretch on Toronto’s waterfront that was under consideration, changed wildly over the years and at times reached nigh-incomprehensible proportions, as was the case with a whopping 1,500-page manifesto that it dropped on policymakers and the public last year. The project proposed wooden buildings and retractable awnings next to fantastical ideas such as tunnels filled with autonomous delivery robots and planning for self-driving cars (coming in 2035, Sidewalk Labs estimated). More salient were the plans to stuff the city with data-collecting sensors, bespoke hubs to add more sensors, and a fiber network to power the whole thing, while licensing new technologies along the way.

Sidewalk Labs seemed intent on pushing its luck over the years. The company proposed plans for 190 acres of Toronto (vs. the originally-planned 12 acres), which caught many by surprise and caused an uproar before being reined in to match initial expectations. Its 1,500-page document also asked the government to allow the smart city to have different regulations than the rest of Toronto. At one point, Sidewalk Labs demanded a cut of property taxes and development fees.

The plan faced numerous obstacles, including a lawsuit from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which sued all three levels of government in 2019. The lawsuit alleged that the government abdicated its responsibility to dictate privacy policy since Waterfront Toronto (Sidewalk Labs' municipal partner) does not have that authority, and neither did Sidewalk Labs. The lawsuit also raised concerns over the possibility of meaningful consent, required by Canada's privacy laws, in a neighbourhood packed with sensors.

“You can argue that you consent when you put Alexa in your home or connect your electronics to your online accounts,” Michael Bryant, executive director of the CCLA, told Motherboard at the time. “It’s another thing to say you consent when you walk from one block in Toronto to the next.”


Privacy concerns also led to the high-profile resignation of former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, who had been advising Sidewalk Labs. She left when the company could not promise that third parties involved in the project would strip identifying information from data collected from residents, the CBC reported.

Community resistance also formed around the plan, with a local group called #Blocksidewalk organizing community meetings to rally around concerns and block the project. One of the group’s main issues was with the threat that the project posed to democracy and civic governance, since it seemed like the Google affiliate was driving many of the key conversations.

In a statement, Waterfront Toronto said this was not the outcome it was looking for, but it would continue to try and develop the waterfront. "Today is not the end of Quayside, but the first day of its future," the statement says. "Waterfront Toronto will continue to seek public and expert input as we make a next generation community at Quayside a reality."

The Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto joins a long tradition of abandoned Google products and projects. For example, Google was building a fiber network in Louisville Kentucky before it suddenly decided the project wasn't financially viable (sound familiar?) and exited the city unceremoniously.

Still, the unmitigated desire to shape society in its own image is strong in the Googleverse. On Wednesday, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt would chair a group that will be "reimagining" how the state uses technology in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.