Ten Reasons to say No: A Primer on Sidewalk Labs Plan for Toronto

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 1908 ... October 14, 2019
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Ten Reasons to say No: A Primer on Sidewalk Labs’ Plan for Toronto

David Robertson

Our eastern waterfront is at risk of becoming a virtual Googlopolis. It began innocently enough. Waterfront Toronto, an agency with representatives from all three levels of government and charged with the responsibility of developing waterfront areas, issued a call for proposals for a "funding and innovation partner" to develop Quayside, a 12-acre site at the foot of Parliament Street.

Sidewalk Labs won the bid. Sidewalk Labs (SWL) is a Google sister company and subsidiary of Google parent company, Alphabet.

Waterfront Toronto is now reviewing the Sidewalk Labs proposal and simultaneously negotiating some of its terms. After completing this chaotic assessment process, Waterfront Toronto will accept, reject or suggest further modifications to the plan. It will then make recommendations to the City of Toronto, the provincial and the federal government.

The problem? Sidewalk Labs has used the winning bid as a platform to launch a hugely different kind of development project and a land grab that dwarfs the... original site.

Anchored by a relocated Google Canadian headquarters, Sidewalk Lab proposes a new zone that would be governed by a handful of new public/private administrative bodies operating with rules and regulations that are different from the rest of the city. Google would build a city within our city, one that risks becoming a virtual gated community like company towns of the past. It’s the 21st century version, dressed up as a ‘smart city’.

The company wants to set up a separate, largely distinct urban zone on Toronto’s waterfront where it can develop and sell ‘smart city’ technologies. Everything and everyone in the zone will become the ‘subject’ of a mega-data stream of behavioural, personal, technical and facility information, collected by thousands of cameras and sensors that Google will mine, manipulate and profit from. It becomes a lab where the model is incubated and tested for global markets.

The entire process of selecting Sidewalk Labs as the "partner," the behaviour of Sidewalk Labs and the content of its 1500 plus page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) all raise serious issues about how we plan and develop our waterfront. Behind all the glitz and ‘future tense’ technology are some very basic issues. Whose priorities are being served? Whose needs are at the centre of the discussion and in whose interests are we about to build on the waterfront?

What follows is a brief review of Sidewalk Labs’ plans. It outlines some of the reasons to say no to corporate control and to insist instead, on a democratic and citizen driven process for waterfront development.

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