Quayside Going By the Wayside?

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UPDATE Quayside, a smart city project proposed for Toronto, with favorable polling still above 50 percent in February, now appears to be languishing, according to OneZero.com. In May, Sidewalk Labs,the company behind the new age city, announced it was abandoning the project, giving economic infeasibility as the reason. Sidewalk Labs, is part of the Alphabet family under the Google banner. The waterfront location was pitched as an interconnected community where life would be better, thanks to a technical support grid. 

The revitalized smart city project came to the drawing board in 2017, and attracted attention with its vision of transforming 2,000 acres of downtown Toronto, an area known for empty buildings and parking lots, into a thriving urban hub. Quayside was supposed to be a hallmark of urban planning, with the smart grid taking into account civic and social services, traffic patterns, utilities, and healthcare. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said that he foresaw the innovations launching changes in “other parts of Canada and around the world.” 

However, the positive welcome that Sidewalk Labs hoped to cultivate has continued to gain detractors. Local residents who attended community meetings expressed concerns that the gentrification of the neighborhood would be detrimental to longtime denizens. The technology that was meant to be the chief appeal of the site has also been met with mounting suspicion.   

Former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Ann Cavoukian, PhD, addressed this concern telling radio host Bianca Wylie, “The ability to track citizens, to engage in surveillance with the technology that they’re proposing – that’s not going to happen. I can provide that assurance.” A doubtful Wylie responded, saying, “If a company is taking that data and using it to build products and services to then sell back to us, why isn’t that intellectual property and the value of that data ours as residents of the city?” She also cast shade on Google offshoot, Sidewalk Labs, noting, “It is not innovative to be partnering with, basically, a monopoly.” 

Reporting on a popularity poll in 2019, MobileSyrup noted even then that respondents had issues with Sidewalk Labs’ perceived lack of transparency. Voices like those in Spacing Magazine, a publication and blog centered on urban culture, added to the growing negativity with repeated articles questioning the value of the Quayside project. Quayside also drew the ire of tech industry bigwigs like Jim Balsillie, a Canadian businessman, philanthropist and former co-CEO of the Canadian company Research In Motion, who expressed his anger at a project of this magnitude being outsourced to the United States instead of being handled in Canada. 

Balsillie shared his views in both government hearings, and in various publications, calling Quayside “not a smart city,” but a “pseudo-tech dystopia.” Sidewalk Labs countered with its own press, but government agencies at different levels began airing their misgivings about the project. The public tide, according to OneZero.com, has turned in favor of rejecting the smart city plan as being more of a surveillance tool and “data cow” for Google than an asset for citizens in Toronto. 

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