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Google Sibling Abandons Ambitious City of the Future in Toronto

OTTAWA — Citing the economic turmoil created by the coronavirus pandemic, a corporate sibling of Google said on Thursday that it had abandoned ambitious plans to create a sensor-laden, data driven city of tomorrow within Toronto.

“It has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community,” Dan Doctoroff, the chief executive of the corporate sibling, Sidewalk Labs, wrote in a blog post.

Sidewalk, and Mr. Doctoroff in particular, had vigorously pushed back against opposition to the plan since it was first unveiled nearly three years ago. But the struggle became a public-relations debacle for Alphabet Inc., the technology conglomerate that is the parent company of Sidewalk and Google.

Urban activists also said the project would turn over critical decision making about the city that rightly belonged to citizens and politicians to Google’s algorithms.

The company also seemed to undermine its cause at times. Asked to present a proposal for a 12-acre demonstration project on former port property in Toronto, it produced a detailed concept for an adjacent 800 acres mostly owned by the federal government, the largest undeveloped tract in downtown Toronto.

In the company’s vision for Toronto, high-rises made from engineered wood would have filled what are now weed lots and underused warehouses along streets. Its bike paths would melt snow.

Pedestrians would be sheltered from rain, snow and blazing heat by giant, automated awnings. Sensors would track residents’ every movement to optimize everything from traffic signals to underground armies of robots delivering parcels and discarding trash.

But there were immediately concerns about the ownership of the data harvested by the developer and the privacy concerns it created, which Sidewalk was never able to fully quell despite repeated concessions.

Sidewalk also backed away from a proposal to receive a cut of future property taxes from the neighborhood in exchange for building a rail transit line.

Ultimately the federal, provincial and municipal government-owned agency that controls the land ordered Sidewalk to devise a plan focused only on the initial 12 acres. The company acknowledged that the reduced scale would force it to abandon many of its ambitions.

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On Thursday, many critics of the plan suggested that opposition to the project and its diminished viability, not the pandemic, lay behind the decision by Sidewalk to quit shortly before the Waterfront Toronto agency made its final decision.

“This is a major victory for the responsible citizens who fought to protect Canada’s democracy, civil and digital rights, as well as the economic development opportunity,” said Jim Balsillie, the former co-chief executive of BlackBerry and one of the prominent critics of the plan.

“Sidewalk Toronto will go down in history as one of the more disturbing planned experiments in surveillance capitalism,” he said.

  • Updated April 11, 2020

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