How a Band of Activists — and One Tech Billionaire — Beat Alphabet’s ‘Smart City’

How a Band of Activists — and One Tech Billionaire — Beat Alphabet’s ‘Smart City’

In October 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at a VIP-laden press event in Toronto to announce plans for a new neighborhood in the city to be built “from the internet up.”

In October 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at a VIP-laden press event in Toronto to announce plans for a new neighborhood in the city to be built “from the internet up.” The big reveal was the builder: Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. The mood was festive, optimistic. Schoolchildren were on hand with Lego models of future cityscapes, which Trudeau, flanked by Eric Schmidt, Alphabet’s then–executive chairman, and John Tory, the Toronto mayor, explored in a flawlessly staged photo op.

The prime minister spoke in earnest tones. Quayside, as the 12-acre waterfront project had been christened, would be “a testbed for new technologies,” he said, “that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities.” Not one to shy away from wholesome platitudes, he added, “The future, just like this community, will be interconnected.”

Then Schmidt rose to the lectern and said that Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had long opined about “all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.” Chuckles reverberated through the crowd.

News that Alphabet had leaped neck deep into the smart city business lit up tech media for weeks. Sidewalk Labs’ renderings for the project — autonomous carts delivering packages and hauling away waste maneuvered in underground tunnels, while barefoot kids, butterflies, and birds cavorted in a Jetsons-meets-organic-living neighborhood at street level — flashed across the internet. Local news stations covered the project dotingly, picking up the Sidewalk Labs talking point that a network of sensors and other IT infrastructure embedded in the community would enable a new era of urban efficiency. Homes and workplaces in Quayside would “study occupants’ behavior while they’re inside them to make life easier,” said a reporter on one evening broadcast after the press event. Quayside would be “the first neighborhood of its kind,” he said, and — as if one superlative wasn’t enough — it would be “a community like none other.”

Sidewalk Labs’ rosy vision for Quayside, however, will not come to be. In May, the company announced it was abandoning the project, citing economic infeasibility. But what wasn’t mentioned was that the project had also become politically infeasible. The Quayside announcement inspired a groundswell of resistance, first among civil liberties activists, and then, eventually, among the ranks of Canada’s most prominent businesspeople, local civic leaders, and Toronto residents. Objections ranged from fears of Orwellian surveillance to Canadians’ general skepticism of the American culture of exceptionalism, so perfectly embodied by a Silicon Valley–designed smart city.

Image for post

CEO of Waterfront Toronto Will Fleissig and CEO of Sidewalk Labs Dan Doctoroff pose on Lake Ontario; Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with Doctoroff. Photo sources: Lucas Oleniuk/Getty Images

The Quayside vision was born at the peak of the tech giants’ cultural prowess. Today, the era of techno-optimism seems all but dead. The demise of the most ambitious smart city project in North America, backed by one of the most powerful corporations on the planet, came at the hands of a small group of Toronto activists — and one disaffected tech billionaire. The story of their battle is a parable, not just for the smart city movement, but also for a growing sense that the tech industry, with its promise of data-driven solutions to structural and institutional problems, won’t save us.

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