When Google Brothers Sidewalk Labs announced in 2017 a $ 50 million investment in a project to redevelop a part of the Toronto waterfront seemed almost too good to be true. One day early, the Sidewalk Labs promised, the Torontonians lived and worked in a former 12-acre industrial site in wooden skyscrapers—A cheaper and more sustainable building material. Cobbled streets of a new type of illuminating paver would allow the development to change its design in seconds, able to host families on foot and forself-driving cars. The basket would travel through the underground slides. The sidewalks would warm up. 40% of the thousands of planned apartments would go to low and middle-income families. And the Google subsidiary founded to digitize and engineer urban planning will collect data on all of this in an effort to perfect city life.
Thursday, the dream is dead. In a average to sendSidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said the company would no longer pursue development. Doctoroff, a former vice mayor of New York City, pointed a finger COVID-19 pandemic. “As unprecedented economic uncertainty has spread worldwide and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the … project financially viable without sacrificing key parts of the plan,” he wrote.
But Sidewalk Labs’ vision was in trouble long before the pandemic. Since its inception, the project had been criticized by progressive activists concerned about how Alphabet would collect and protect the data and who would own it. Conservative Ontario Prime Minister Doug Ford, meanwhile, wondered if taxpayers would get enough bang from the money of the project. The Sidewalk Labs of New York fought with its local partner, the waterfront redevelopment agency, on the ownership of the intellectual property of the project and, above all, on its financing. Sometimes they looked like its operators confused by the vagaries of Toronto politics. The project had missed the deadline after the deadline.
The partnership was more successful last summer, when Sidewalk Labs released a trend-setting and even more ambitious film General plan of 1,524 pages for the lot that went far beyond what the government had foreseen and for which the company has committed itself spend up to $ 1.3 billion on completion. The redevelopment team wondered if some of Sidewalk Labs’ proposals for data collection and governance were even “compliant with applicable laws”. He hesitated to suggest that the government committed millions to extend public transportation in the area, a commitment, the group reminded the company, which it could not do on its own.
That big master plan can remain useful, Doctoroff said in his blog post. Sidewalk Labs thought seriously about civic data management over the two and a half year project. Until March, Sidewalk Labs executives discussed with WIRED about the company could deal with the problem in complete transparency. (Critics have said that even these efforts have not gone far enough.) Doctoroff says the work – and the work of the portfolio companies of Sidewalk Labs, which seek to address various urban mobility and infrastructure problems – will continue.
However, the end of the project raises questions about “Smart cities” movement, which seeks to integrate cutting-edge technological tools with democratic governance. The buzzwords, all the rage when the adage “data is the new oil” generated fewer glances, suffered during the theft. Cities and their residents have become more suspicious what Silicon Valley companies could do with their data. In theory, one way to solve this type of project is to actually start from the bottom. “The next time this will be done by Sidewalk Labs or any major tech company that wants to reimagine the future of neighborhoods, it will be done in close communication with communities,” says Daniel O’Brien, who studies the research and political implications of “big data” at the Northeastern University School of Public Policy.
Paradoxically, the end of the Toronto project comes when data collection and surveillance are seen as key tools to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Google developed with Apple smartphone technology that automatically tracks infected patient encounters with others. The companies say the data will only be recorded anonymously and that the contact search regime could eventually free most Americans from shelter on the spot. The world is about to face a big experiment on what can and should be done with data. For now, an abandoned fragment of Toronto will not be part of it.
This story originally appeared wired.com.