Alphabet’s Scrapping Its Smart City Dreams

Alphabet’s Scrapping Its Smart City Dreams

For the past two years and change, Google’s smart-city-centric sister company Footpath Labs has put millions on the line to build what it called a model smart city in downtown Toronto. The planned neighbourhood, called “Quayside,” was supposed to be nothing short of utopic, boasting everything from affordable housing to its own power grid—but like most of the tech that Google touches, these perks came with a data-sucking price to be paid, sparking outcry and an eventual lawsuit from Canadian advocates worried about the smart city’s potential for surveillance.

Ultimately though, it wasn’t the critics that would shut these city plans down. Instead, according to a Medium post made earlier today by Footpath CEO David Doctoroff, the plans for Quayside will be scrapped due to the pandemic-induced plunge in local real estate. As he put it:

For the last two-and-a-half years, we have been passionate about making Quayside happen — indeed, we have invested time, people, and resources in Toronto, including opening a 30-person office on the waterfront. But 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 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community.

And so, after a great deal of deliberation, we concluded that it no longer made sense to proceed with the Quayside project, and let Waterfront Toronto know yesterday.

Even before the housing market tanked, Quayside was facing an uphill battle from the get-go. Last year, Footpath sharply curbed their proposed city from a nearly 200-acre sprawl to one less than a tenth that size, not to mention some pretty public resignations from the project’s oversight committee citing Footpath’s “apathy” towards the Canadian public, particularly when it came to their concerns about Google’s shaky history with digital privacy.

Of course, those concerns didn’t keep Footpath from ploughing forward, and likely won’t stop them from ploughing forward in the future. A surveillance-fuelled city might be off the table for now, but according to Doctoroff, Footpath will keep supporting its spinoffs. These plans include Replica, a project that maps out cities using mobile location data from resident’s phones, and Cityblock, a multi-million dollar startup built to bring healthcare services to poorer communities.