Is There Such a Thing As an Ethical Smart City?

Josh O’Kane’s new book on Sidewalk Labs’ failed city of the future says there’s potential.

In October 2017, an Alphabet subsidiary named Sidewalk Labs announced that it was going to build a brand-new neighborhood, “mixing people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology,” on a sliver of Toronto’s waterfront known as Quayside. The company, originally founded as Google’s urban-planning arm, promised a beautiful “carbon-positive” city: A 1,500-page, four-volume document featured full-color illustrations of kayakers paddling along packed beaches, families strolling leafy streets, and workers sipping coffee in golden-lit outdoor cafés in the dead of winter. It would also utilize a dizzying array of fantastical tech: pneumatic trash cans, snow-melting pavement, retractable rain canopies, its signature self-driving cars (of course), and sensors to track everything from foot traffic to air quality to food waste, which, by interfacing with the smartphones of residents, would produce quantified data snapshots of daily life.

“The most innovative district in the entire world,” said Dan Doctoroff, a former deputy mayor under Michael Bloomberg, who led Sidewalk’s contingent of urbanists and architects. Alphabet was putting up the funds but expected a return on its investment: The neighborhood would double as a kind of urban-tech theme park to help the company sell its innovations to other municipalities. The project would be so well conceived, so perfectly livable, that Sidewalk Labs assumed the people of Toronto would flock to its meticulously designed, hypersurveilled boundaries.

Within 18 months of the announcement, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association called the plan a “non-consensual, state-authorized mass capture of Canadians’ personal information.” Leaked documents also revealed that Sidewalk Labs had much grander aspirations than the single neighborhood it was selling to city leaders. The Quayside parcel was relatively small, only 12 acres, yet Sidewalk Labs was secretly planning to acquire 800 acres of adjacent properties with the intention to site a new Google campus. The reason for the land grab, Sidewalk Labs claimed, was that it needed scale in order to make the grandiose project truly work.

Then, in May 2020, less than a year after the official $1.3 billion draft master plan had been released, Sidewalk Labs suddenly abandoned Quayside, blaming the pandemic for derailing its plans. What actually happened was a bit more complicated.

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