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Utopia mothballed: what we can learn from Quayside Toronto

Sidewalk Lab’s Quayside Toronto was one of the biggest smart city projects in the world, but it has been beset by fears around privacy, data collection and overreach. Does its demise spell the end for ambitious inner-city projects or is it just another victim of the rethink we need to have about urban density after COVID 19?

In case you aren’t across all things Toronto, there has been some news out of Canada’s most populous city in the past month that is worth spending some time on.

Less than a year after a masterplan was publicly released, the Quayside Toronto project – an ambitious partnership between Alphabet spinoff Sidewalk Labs and local authorities — has been officially scrapped.

Quayside, covering an area less than three times that of Optus Stadium, had been billed as a modern utopia that would showcase the best of the “smart cities” concept.

Housing was to be largely affordable and the project was tipped to generate more than 90,000 jobs and Can$14.2 billion in annual revenue by the time it was completed in 2040.

Integration with new mobility initiatives would remove the need for car ownership, according to the plans.  “Raincoats” on buildings would help facilitate year-round access to “people-first” streets.

And then there were the technical innovations that you’d expect from a project connected with Alphabet (which is most famous for owning Google).

It would be the first neighbourhood built of sustainable “mass timber” (promoted as being as strong and fire-resistant as concrete or steel) and would feature dynamic street curbing that adjusted during the day for different types of use. There would be an “advanced power grid” based on solar energy and battery storage and, famously, self-heating pavement that could melt snow, plus a “pneumatic waste system with a pay-as-you-throw structure” that funnelled rubbish underneath city streets.

And, of course, self-driving cars were very much seen as part of Quayside Toronto’s future.

At least that was the plan.

In May, Sidewalk Labs announced it was walking away from the project, with CEO Dan Doctoroff writing that COVID-19 related “economic uncertainty [had] set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market” and made the project unviable.

But Doctoroff’s announcement came on the back of years of controversy around data collection associated with the project, a perceived over-emphasis on showing off technology and an (ironically) ever-sprawling scope.

Photo to go with story on Sidewalks Quayside project in Toronto.

Quayside had been billed as a modern utopia that would showcase the best of the “smart cities” concept.

What should have been a showcase smart-city project became a battleground for the debate over data collection, city-scale labs and citizen consent.

It demonstrated the importance of winning the agreement of residents before embarking on a project that requires crowd-level data collection to succeed and highlighted yet again the gulf in trust when it comes to corporates and their use of personal information.

But there are important questions out of Quayside Toronto’s demise that should resonate in Australia as well.

An obvious one, related to COVID-19, is how we approach the issue of urban density in the wake of the pandemic. The so-called ‘third place’ — the communal environment in which we can gather, be entertained, connect and interact — looks far less inviting than it did previously.

Yet these spaces, from plazas to shopping malls to shared community gardens, have been the go-to option for developers and planners looking to balance increased density with shared amenities.

In a post-COVID world – in which we are hoping to have a vaccine but not guaranteed of one – how realistic are these spaces? Can we make them more resilient to a pandemic or will we retreat from the advances made through better urban design?

On the issue of privacy and data collection, consent remains a live one.

Australia has its own Smart Cities program, parts of which are set to be delivered via the City Deals initiative. None of our projects are quite so grandiose as Sidewalk Toronto, but again it’s likely there will need to be some substantial re-thinking as a result of COVID-19.

Just as we see some reluctance in downloading Australia’s COVID-19 tracking app, there are genuine fears by many people about the government use of surveillance technologies such as facial recognition, location data and gait analysis.

At the same time, the pandemic has seen the introduction of new forms of population surveillance that range from reassuring to dystopian. China pioneered drones that would follow citizens and yell at them for breaching social distancing, but there were reports WA might adopt this technology as well.

Singapore has introduced the terrifying Boston Dynamics robot dog that has to be seen to be believed.

A crisis is a time in which innovations arise, but whether people are prepared to accept too many intrusions into personal lives, even for safety, remains to be seen.

Finally, Sidewalk’s decision to walk away in Toronto also demonstrates one of the potential risks for governments in partnering with commercial businesses.

It’s a Catch-22 situation – it’s difficult to even contemplate a project like the one in Toronto without a commercial partner, but when a company like Sidewalk (and, by extension, Alphabet) walks away, finding a suitable replacement is next-to impossible.

Some governments may not want to take the risk of even starting to conceptualise projects along the lines of Quayside Toronto, but this would be disappointing.

Ambitious inner-city projects, that push the boundaries of what is possible, and defy suburban sprawl as a strategy, make our cities more liveable.

But the lesson from Quayside is that citizens must be brought along on the journey.

Ruth Callaghan is Cannings Purple’s Chief Innovation Officer and a leading media strategist with more than 20 years’ experience in corporate communications in the property space and in journalism. Contact Ruth.

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