A calendar reminder popped up yesterday: June 25th was supposed to be Decision Day, the day Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto would tell us whether they were moving forward with the Quayside smart city project. What happened instead was that Sidewalk laid off most of its Toronto staff, perhaps a coincidence in timing since their decision to walk away was made weeks before.
I remember my first reaction, when the news flashed across my computer screen that Sidewalk Labs was walking away from Toronto’s smart city project, was disbelief. Then, happiness, at first pure but soon blended with an odd kind of disappointment that has grown over time. Not because Toronto’s flirtation with Google’s sexy little sister (or buff little brother, as you prefer) ended in a breakup. They were only pretty on the outside. No, disappointed because of the way the narrative of this project’s end is being predominantly written, not by the victors but by those who see this as a defeat.
COVID-19 provided the excuse and initially, that seemed to be accepted at face value. Contributory factors bandied about, based on mainstream commentary, were a city too risk averse to appreciate new ideas, a culture too cautious, or on the other side, a vendor too optimistic, too ambitious, or too out of touch with sluggish Canadian policy-making to make a go of it. Let’s call bullshit.
Toronto residents have been bamboozled and frankly outgunned by the spin and hype created around this project from the beginning, and for far too long. So at the end, it is our right and responsibility to reframe and reclaim this story. People stood up against this development. Lots of people, at every consultation, at every public moment. People from all walks of life, from Jim Balsillie, former RIM CEO to ACORN, a national social justice organisation for low– and moderate-income people. Bianca Wylie emerged early as a pointed, thoughtful critic. Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression, very early on, pulled together academics, activists, and civil society groups to start important conversations about risks and rights and what visions for urban design based on technology-enhanced infrastructures would need to take into account. BlockSidewalk, a grassroots group that began with a core of 30 or so and grew to having more than 1000 supporters, organised, held meetings, drove turnout to public consultations, and coordinated with other groups, internationally, who were standing up against big tech incursions into local communities. Good Jobs For All, affordable housing advocates, climate action groups, student groups, and so many more, rallied their constituencies.
CCLA, too, stood up. Our little team, with amazing counsel from Foglers LLP, took on all three levels of government, and Waterfront Toronto, to file a legal application challenging the fundamental flaws in the Quayside project, baked in from its conception. Our strategy, in launching public interest litigation, was to exert pressure in a way that local resident resistance alone might not achieve. And why did so many disparate groups and individuals rally against this project? Because it was about privatization of public services and city infrastructure. It was about power. It was explicitly, unapologetically about creating a testbed to experiment with technologies that could be refined in Toronto and sold elsewhere when the kinks were worked out at our expense.
It was, despite late-in-the-game denials by Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff, about driving data collection to create opportunities for monetizing and monitoring the ways cities function and the ways people behave as they live their lives in their homes, workplaces, and on city streets. It was about embedding the model of surveillance capitalism that drives the online economy into public spaces offline. And it was a monumental risk to local democratic accountability, to our privacy, and to all of the other rights that are at risk when surveillance drives decisions about human lives and human opportunities.
It is perhaps uniquely Canadian that much of the protest over the Quayside smart city was at its core not hating on our political leadership but rather asking them to step up. What we saw was a failure of our ostensible leaders, at every level, to actually lead the way in defining those terms for us, with us. Instead, we had a city government with direct democratic accountability to us, as residents of Toronto, repeatedly defer on decision-making and deflect criticism to the public-facing but not publicly accountable Waterfront Toronto. More than 2 years after the project began the city finally launched a study and consultation on digital infrastructures, too little, too late when it came to providing any real assurance for Torontonians that city-approved protections and data governance principles would be baked into Quayside.
We had provincial and federal governments who openly acknowledged that Canada’s privacy laws require updating to deal with modern repercussions of our fascination with big data as a driver of innovation, but failed to move the needle on those protections in any meaningful way.
We deserve better.
And Sidewalk Labs departure from Quayside gives us the chance to make something better. All of the discussion and debate, all of the consultation and advocacy, provoked by the “city from the internet up,” whether you see that trope as promise or threat, gives us the beginning of the foundation we should have had before ever launching a smart city project. We can be innovative in a rights-respecting framework. We can be inclusive. We can focus on resident-identified needs which clearly begin with affordable housing and meaningful good jobs to make human-beneficial use of public land. We can figure out what those things look like post-COVID, and move forward together.
Sidewalk labs described themselves as a catalyst. Credit where credit is due, they were. But Torontonians and more broadly, Canadians, are now rightly the ones to control the reaction. Let’s not squander the second chance this victory provides. What we’ve won is the chance to actually get smart about city building.
And who won? We did, the people who care about the place we live and who have made it crystal clear that we want a say in what it looks like and who gets to build it with us.
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The CCLA is an independent, non-profit organization with supporters from across the country. Founded in 1964, the CCLA is a national human rights organization committed to defending the rights, dignity, safety, and freedoms of all people in Canada.
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