Alphabet gives up its plan to build a futuristic neighborhood in Toronto

Sidewalk Labs, the subsidiary of Alphabet (GOOG) focused on smart cities, will no longer help develop the Canadian city’s Quayside neighborhood, it announced Thursday.
“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,” Daniel Doctoroff, chairman and CEO of Sidewalk Labs, said in a blog post. “After a great deal of deliberation, we concluded that it no longer made sense to proceed.”

Alphabet started working on the project in 2017, committing more than $50 million to reducing traffic congestion, carbon emissions and landfill waste using technology. But the plan quickly sparked controversy because of concerns over the amount of citizen data it would collect, and was widely slammed by privacy campaigners and politicians.

As part of a 1,524-page report laying out its vision, Sidewalk Labs proposed intersections with sensors, tracking the movement of all people and vehicles. The company said this would help move traffic swiftly and ensure walk signals leave added time for slow walkers, such as the elderly.

Sidewalk Labs said it would create an urban data trust to handle the neighborhood’s information, which would provide independent stewardship of the data and approve how it is collected and used. But experts warned that there is no guarantee data trusts will address issues surrounding privacy, data breaches and biased algorithms.

The project was significantly scaled back in October, limiting the amount of land that would be redeveloped and less control over data.

Waterfront Toronto, the government agency overseeing the development, said it would continue with the project.

“While this is not the outcome we had hoped for, Waterfront Toronto offers thanks and appreciation to Sidewalk Labs for its vision, effort, and the many commitments that both the company and its employees have made to the future of Toronto,” Stephen Diamond, the agency’s head, said in a statement. “Waterfront Toronto will continue to seek public and expert input as we make a next generation community at Quayside a reality.”

Doctoroff said Thursday that Sidewalk Labs will continue to focus on smart cities and related projects.

“While we won’t be pursuing this particular project, the current health emergency makes us feel even more strongly about the importance of reimagining cities for the future,” he said. “This is a vital societal endeavor, and Sidewalk Labs will continue our work to contribute to it.”

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