For the last two years, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary brand of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), has been in the process of planning one of North America’s largest areas of untapped urban land: the former docklands in Toronto. Headed by Daniel Doctoroff – Bloomberg acolyte and part dreamweaver of New York’s Hudson Yards fiasco – Sidewalk Labs wants to use digital tools to build smart cities for “urban innovation,” aiming to solve urban issues such as “longer commutes,” “higher rents” and “fewer opportunities” through technology.
Their Quayside proposal alone includes ideas for a Google HQ, schools, various forms of housing, plazas, offices and retail facilities. But while the scheme encompasses but a segment of the docklands, Quayside is meant to serve as a framework and test-bed for a wider proposal to be rolled out across the whole eastern waterfront area, dubbed the “IDEA District.” It goes without saying that these plans have proved particularly contentious. Criticism in the local and national Canadian press has highlighted its lack of affordable housing, data collection issues, corporate tax deductions and the undemocratic nature of the planning process, while activists such as the #BlockSidewalkcampaign are organising to challenge the development.
Sidewalk’s plans for Toronto are emblematic of the ways Big Tech companies are taking over responsibilities traditionally provided by governments, and further encroaching into physical urban space. This approach applies the logic of platform capitalism — a model wherein a handful of companies have consolidated economic power by owning and controlling the majority of digital infrastructures — to urban planning, reflected in both the design and funding of Sidewalk’s plans for the Toronto waterfront in general, and its “proving ground” of Quayside in particular. Indeed, Sidewalk Labs have continually stated that they look at urban landscapes as they would a consumer digital product such as a phone. Rit Aggarwala, Head of Urban Systems at Sidewalk has said if “you think of the city as a platform, and design in the ability for people to change it as quickly as you and I can customize our iPhones, you make it authentic because it doesn’t just reflect a central plan.”