Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs was planning to create robots for mail delivery and trash disposal in a carbon-neutral neighborhood on the shores of Lake Ontario. The city would be designed “from the Internet up”, supporting goals like inclusivity, sustainability, and innovation.
It was a utopian vision. Affordable housing, an environment that encouraged commuting without cars, and plenty of jobs for everyone.
Then came the pandemic, which is much more like a dystopian vision. Hundreds of thousands dead. Murderous hornets. People killed over face masks.
Or, as Sidewalk Labs put it, “economic uncertainty.” That is the official, and quite sensible, explanation for the cancellation of the project.
“As unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan,” Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said. “And so, after a great deal of deliberation, we concluded that it no longer made sense to proceed with the Quayside project.”
Doctoroff also made the point that the pandemic has made urban innovation even more important. Therefore, the work on Quayside is also even more important. Those postal and waste disposal robots were going to work underground, solving a lot of the problems involved in replacing human workers on the surface.
Heated sidewalks and bike paths would have solved the problem of snow and frost interfering with winter transportation. Sensors would have measured things like pedestrians’ gaits, water use, and trash production. The data collected would have been a boon to urban planners, and could have reduced costs and improved services.
Toronto hopes to continue with the smart city within a city at some point.
Some people were, however, concerned about the project. Privacy was of course one of the major worries. Opponents called it “Surveillance City.” For example, Quayside homes would all have Alphabet’s Nest sensors, allowing urban planners to save carbon emissions and money by controlling the temperature in the homes based on occupancy.
Do you want your urban planners to know when you’re home?
Cameras and sensors could collect enough data to be really useful for Google advertisers, and this is the source of concern, apart from an abstract devotion to privacy. Big Data catches connections that people can’t see. For example, Quayside’s sensors could notice that people who walked home from work more slowly than average were also more likely to order pizza delivery. Theoretically, Google could offer pizza delivery ads to people when they walked home more slowly.
Trudging home on these low-energy days (or maybe strolling thoughtfully and enjoying the walk), consumers could get a text ad encouraging them to schedule delivery right away, so they could have pizza almost as soon as they reached their home.
That’s just one example.
Other controversies included the possibility of “Americanizing” the Canadian city of Toronto and of just giving Google too much power in the world.
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