The future of megaprojects

Learning From Google’s Failed Smart City

In October 2017, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced ground-breaking plans to transform Toronto’s Waterfront neighbourhood into a city “built from the internet up”. This was the first time that many had ever heard of a company called Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which was behind the project. The announcement was met with great interest from citizens, tech pundits and infrastructure experts alike.

Fast forward two years and the project had been completely abandoned before physical work had even begun.

According to Sidewalk Labs, the reason for the project’s failure was straightforward – “the unprecedented economic uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic” had made it unviable. However, looking at the bigger picture, it appears that the project was weakened beyond repair far before the pandemic hit. Today we are taking a look at the root cause of the failure of the ‘Google Smart City’ – poor community engagement.

A City of The Future

At the 2017 press conference, Alphabet’s Executive Chairman took the stage after Trudeau. He recalled conversations between himself and Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin where they had gotten caught up discussing “all of these things that we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge”. Toronto’s Quayside (often referred to as the Waterfront) finally gave them that opportunity. The original plan was for Sidewalk Labs to transform the Waterfront into a city where “algorithms would ease congestion on heated roads [and] autonomous vehicles would shuttle residents past wooden skyscrapers”.

Below are just a few of the smart solutions that were planned in hopes of improving the quality of life within the smart city:

Challenge

Sidewalk’s Solution

Inefficient sanitation work

Rubbish bins embedded with sensors that would alert the sanitation department when they were full

Extreme weather

Street pavers with embedded lights which could heat pavements to prevent weather from causing safety hazards during Toronto’s cold months

Road congestion

Autonomous vehicle technology and road lights which would become changeable lane markings when traffic reached its peak

Insufficient community space

“Building raincoats” that would extend from the building to ensure that outdoor community spaces were viable in tough weather conditions

Difficulty parking

‘Pebble’ devices which utilise real-time data to manage parking spaces throughout the city

With these solutions being just the tip of the ice berg in the plans to build the digital city, the buzz around the transformative nature of this technology was understandably building from the start.

What went wrong

At first many were excited about the prospect of a truly digital city. Local news stations echoed Sidewalk Labs’ vision that “a network of sensors and other IT infrastructure embedded in the community would enable a new era of urban efficiency”. However, trouble was clearly brewing even as Sidewalk Labs hosted meetings aimed at engendering community excitement. At one of these meetings, a community member had pinned a message to a comment board asking “Is Google Big Brother now?”.

According to Sidewalk Lab’s website, the project was a result of 18 months of consultation and “robust engagement” with over 21,000 Toronto residents. However, concerns of individual citizens and Toronto’s City Council seem to reflect a different reality. In 2018, Jim Baslillie, co-founder of Blackberry, expressed concern that the project was “a colonising experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues”. Baslillie’s concerns were mirrored by prominent US venture capitalist Roger McNamee, who wrote a public letter to the City Council in which he argued that “the smart city project on the Toronto Waterfront is the most highly involved version to date of…surveillance capitalism. No matter what Google is offering, the value to Toronto cannot possibly approach the value your city is giving up.”

Discontent only grew when a senior consultant of Sidewalk Labs, Dr. Ann Cavoukian, resigned after she learned that Sidewalk Labs would not guarantee that partner companies involved in the project would strip personal identifiers from data. On the heels of this resignation, the City Council produced a report which highlighted its serious concerns over the project, while citizens began the #blocksidewalk campaign. By mid-2019 it appeared that, having missed early warning-signs of community discontent with the planned project, the backlash stemming from concerns over data privacy was too much to overcome.

Community Engagement is Non-Negotiable

It is well established that community engagement is vital in project delivery. Indeed, in order to successfully drive an infrastructure project, there must be effort put in to preparing communities for any potential disruption during construction and the impact of the end result. It has been noted elsewhere that “this can only really be achieved by listening to the concerns of local residents and businesses and considering them at an early stage in the process”.

What is clear when reflecting on the failure of the Waterfront project is that Sidewalk Labs failed to allay increasingly urgent concerns over data privacy. For instance, when the company’s Head of Urban Systems, Rit Aggarwala was questioned on data privacy during press briefing ahead of a public roundtable, he answered “we’re not really going to tell anything new on that topic…frankly there are a lot of other things that are also very important to this project .” The community of Toronto felt like their concerns were not fully acknowledged during the somewhat lacking community engagement effort from project teams, as a result, community opposition snowballed.

This is backed up by a study of the planning materials and public engagement feedback that emerged during the Waterfront project. The discourse analysis conducted as part of this research concluded that Sidewalk Labs failed to gain the trust of the community. Having assessed this failure to engage the community successfully, some commentators have claimed that public opinion killed the smart city plans before they got off the ground.

Lessons Learned?

Unfortunately, it appears that Alphabet’s subsidiary failed to learn lessons in the vital nature of substantial community engagement from the Toronto project. In 2021, its attempt to implement its Replica technology to in Portland USA failed for many of the same reasons that the Waterfront project was halted as emails revealed that Portland Metro’s Chief Technology Strategist raised serious concerns that “Sidewalk Labs isn’t willing to share the full privacy audit” with officials or the public.

Whether or not the project was a case of ‘too much too soon’ in an age where data privacy is a key concern for many, it is clear that community engagement was severely lacking in the case of the Toronto Waterfront project. Project organisations must engage with key stakeholders, especially the public, from the very start of a project. As with almost all risk in megaprojects, ignoring the risk of public backlash is almost certain to become a serious problem later down the line. This is the lesson we must learn from Toronto’s failed smart city.

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Author:

Madeleine Jones Casey

Madeleine Jones-Casey

Business Writer at Foresight Works

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