Urbanism Under Google: Lessons from Sidewalk Toronto

By Ellen P. Goodman & Julia Powles
November 2, 2019

Cities around the world are rapidly adopting digital technologies, data analytics, and the trappings of “smart” infrastructure. These innovations are touted as solutions to help rationalize services and address rising urban challenges, whether in housing, transit, energy, law enforcement, health care, waste management, or population flow. Promises of urban innovation unite cities’ need for help with technology firms’ need for markets and are rarely subject to evidentiary burdens about projected benefits (let alone costs). For the city, being smart is about functioning better and attracting tech plaudits. For the technology company, the smart city is a way to capture the value of data flows—either by directly monetizing behavioral insights or by using those insights to design or acquire services—and then realizing the network effects and monopoly rents that have characterized information technology platforms.

No company is more ambitious about exploring data flows and seeking to create and dominate networks of information than Google. In October 2017, Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs embarked on its first prototype smart city in Toronto, Canada, through a collaboration with the public development authority Waterfront Toronto. Together, the project partners are planning a new kind of data-driven urban environment: “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up.” The vision is for a neighborhood featuring state-of-the-art sustainable architecture, autonomous vehicles, sensor-based surveillance, and data-driven “responsive” services. Much of the vision draws from leading city planning ideas and foregrounds progressive ideals of inclusivity and sustainability. However, for the crucial first eighteen months of the venture, many of the most consequential features of the Sidewalk Toronto project were hidden from view and unavailable for serious scrutiny. On basic questions about the proposed set of innovations, the players defied public accountability: questions about data collection, data control, privacy, competition, and procurement. Even more basic questions about the use of public space went unanswered: privatized services, land ownership, infrastructure ownership, and, in all cases, the question of who is in control. The net result is that there can be no confidence that the Sidewalk Toronto vision is compatible with democratic processes, sustained public governance, or the public interest. This Article analyzes the Sidewalk Toronto project as it took shape in its first phase, prior to the release of the Master Innovation and Development Plan, and explores three major governance challenges posed by the imagined “city of the future”: privatization, platformization, and domination. The significance of this case study applies well beyond Toronto. Google and related companies are modeling future business growth embedded in cities and using projects like Sidewalk Toronto as test beds. What happens in Toronto is designed to be replicated. We conclude with some lessons highlighting the precarity of civic stewardship and public accountability when cities are confronted with tantalizing visions of privatized urban innovation.