Tag Archives: Toronto

Google Rolls the Sidewalk Up in Toronto

New Orleans      The old saying was always that “pride cometh before the fall.”  In the case of Alphabet-Google’s Sidewalk visions of grandeur, it turns out pride — and arrogance –came from the very beginning, throughout, before the fall, during the fall, and now after the fall as well.

Sidewalk was one piece of the billion-dollar bets that the mega-tech company makes on the future when times are good for them.  They were going to design the “city of the future.”  Yes, like I said the pride existed from the beginning, even before the plan.  They recruited New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s economic development chieftain to run the venture.  Their basic claim to fame was going to be the tech tools that have made Google a trillion-dollar business on a good day and apply them to the urban space.

Toronto, Canada was to be their showpiece.  They won the right to be the primary developer on a 12-acre plot along the river front, called Quayside, that was controlled by the City of Toronto through Waterfront Toronto and supported by the province of Ontario as well.

The Sidewalk proposal had been breathtaking in its scope, but much of it let to the gasps that come from choking, rather than wonder.  Streets were going to have underground sensors.  Electric transportation would be everywhere.  Housing units would be all equipped to the beams with the latest tech toys.

ACORN raised objections from the beginning.  There seemed to be no plan in the city-of-the-future for sufficient affordable housing for low-and-moderate-income families or really for such families under any conditions .  Sidewalk promised some concessions, but they were never enough to win our support on many levels.  From the beginning the response from Sidewalk executives from top to bottom was, “we know ACORN” based on their experience with ACORN in New York City during the Bloomberg years, but it never yielded serious discussions or modifications.

Alphabet-Google’s Sidewalk also bled from other self-inflicted wounds.  Though asked for a plan for 12 acres, they tried to expand its footprint to 800 acres and had to be pushed back by the city to the original proposition.  In the same way its parent has been plagued by privacy concerns, Sidewalk was never able to give sufficient assurance to anyone about how they would protect privacy with all of this tech-surveillance and monitoring.  Offering to put it in a jointly accessed, but publicly controlled, data bank just didn’t make it.

Then of course there was the other fatal tech affliction:  Silicon Valley libertarianism.  Sidewalk just wasn’t clear about this whole democracy thing.  They wanted a slice of the taxes, and they did not want control by city elected officials of many aspects of the project.

They announced that the new financial realities were causing them to delete part of their dreamscape, so they were pulling out.  Indeed, the financial realities are changing, but this project was DOA long before they rolled up the sidewalk.  The truth is that Sidewalk didn’t understand enough about the city of the present in Toronto or what we and many others were willing to accept in the future.  Now, in the time of pandemic is seems clear that no one is really clear about what the city of the future looks like, but it is clear that the future has to put people first, not tech, and that doesn’t fit well with the Google-world.

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Google Sidewalk Project is Still Too Sketchy and Undemocratic

Sidewalk Labs

New Orleans    Maybe I should shut-up about the Sidewalk development project being proposed by Google in Toronto on 800-acres.  ACORN and some of our allies went after them from the day they won the bid to submit proposals on the issue of the lack of affordable housing in a city that is caught in an affordable housing crisis.  The more than 1000-page proposal they submitted this week actually makes concessions to our demands.  Of the 35,000 housing units now proposed, they claim that 40% would be affordable.  That’s a win, but is that enough to make us stomach the role of Google, the fakery of the consultative process up to this point, and, frankly, the neoliberal corporate control and privatization of public process, regulations, and responsibilities.

I’m not going to pretend that Google isn’t a tech wonder even as it has become a world power.  It’s not as creepy as Facebook, but it’s unaccountable with a business model that pimps out all of us who use their services.  I have a google address for some personal business.  I use Google Maps to navigate my way around the world.  ACORN has a YouTube channel.  When PalmPilot went under, I had to switch to Google calendar.  I’m not a hater.

ACORN Canada even uses Google to host their email system, despite the fact that Google is crystal clear that they never destroy anything.  The depth of their data mining operation is unlimited and unfathomable.  They want to make the Sidewalk project a data motherload for Google as well.  The company’s proposal claims that they will turn everything over to an independent data trust, sanctioned by the government, so that they, and others, can access the data.  Privacy experts are not so easily assuaged.  Neither am I.  Isn’t such citizen experience with public goods something that should remain purely the responsibility of government accountable to citizens, rather than accessible to a private business like Google or other private concerns?  If the city of Toronto or any other city announced that it was collecting data on its citizens and was then going to sell it, people there and anywhere else would be up in arms.

Google, as a private company, simply doesn’t get the fact that there are boundaries.  They are part of the “apologize later, never ask for permission” crowd.  Their proposal ignores existing Toronto zoning laws for example, and I couldn’t read any piece of this without feeling they were usurping the authority of government and the people.  That’s what neoliberalism is, the transfer of public rights and authority to private concerns.  If Google was hired to be a designer and developer, why would they believe that allows them to own the show and run it forever.  A developer, for good or evil, usually sells their “castles in the sky” and then gets their money and runs.  Google seems to think they should own this project forever.  Google needs to taught about limits.

The New York Times quotes Jim Balsille, who was the co-chairmen and co-chief executive of BlackBerry, once the ubiquitous smartphone of the business set, headquartered in Ontario in the Waterloo-Kitchener area, saying,

“I am keen to see the end of this faux consultation charade, an ugly 18-month, psychological public relations game….Google has deliberately weaponized ambiguity, subverted democratic process, obfuscated key elements of concern such as data governance and revealed information to the public only when smoked out by aggressive criticism or through a media leak.”

This just doesn’t seem like it’s going to end well.

ACORN Canada will continue to hold any and all feet to the fire on affordable housing, but perhaps all of us just need to thank Google for whatever good we see in the plan, ignore their attempt to buy support with their own investment masked as infrastructure spending, but recovered through selling data, and retake control of any development and hire contractors to provide whatever services public entities can’t provide.

Public entities have to be able to trust their partners, and Google is not a trustworthy partner at this point.  Google can bid like anyone else, but should not run or own anything.  Haven’t we learned that lesson from Silicon Valley by now?

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