Google promised to create the neighbourhood of the future in Toronto. Then residents rebelledby Martin Moore / January 28, 2019 / Leave a comment
On 17th October 2017, Eric Schmidt joined Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, and John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, on stage in Corus Quay on the city’s waterfront. Schmidt, then executive chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), was there to announce a new partnership between Toronto, the Canadian government and Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs to redevelop a 12-acre plot called Quayside, with a view to extending it by a further 800 acres.
“We cannot wait to get started,” said Schmidt, on building what his company called the “neighbourhood of the future.” Everyone on stage seemed to assume that Toronto residents would welcome the project—and the Google money that went with it—with open arms. They were soon proved wrong.
Sidewalk Labs was aiming to create the city of tomorrow, “with connectivity designed into its very foundation.” Its 196-page proposal envisioned self-driving shuttles, modular housing, rubbish-collecting robots, data-driven public services and what it described as a “programmable public realm.” Technology would be seamlessly integrated into the physical environment: ceaseless streams of data would make the city efficient, adaptable, responsive and ecologically sustainable. The result would be the first “thinking” city, fed with information which would then be crunched by algorithms.
From the outset, Sidewalk saw Quayside as a “global testbed” for urban innovation, a “replicable model for the world.” “What happens in Quayside,” the project vision said, “will not stay in Quayside.”
Yet conspicuously missing from Sidewalk’s proposal was any mention of politics. Developing a new city from the ground up inevitably raises a cat’s cradle of political choices. And the deployment of all that data does not reduce those political questions, but only multiplies them. How would all those streams of data be used to make decisions about public services? Who would control the platform, own the algorithms and potentially profit from the knowledge gleaned? And who would decide what could get built, whether bricks and mortar or digital infrastructure? On these and other political questions the proposal was either silent or else reverted to the passive voice, sometimes wrapped in mystifying jargon.
For example, in relation to something called Quayside’s “platform standards layer”—which, the Sidewalk proposal explains, would define “the rules for residents, administrators, and developers using and building atop…