What the cancellation of Sidewalk Labs in Toronto means for Ryerson

In Business & Technology, Campus News, COVID-19, News1 Comment

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By Libaan Osman, Heidi Lee and Alexandra Holyk

Although Google-affiliate organization Sidewalk Labs cancelled its plans to make Toronto’s Quayside a “smart city,” the discussion around city development is still open among Ryerson community members.

In a statement on May 7, Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff said the decision was made due to Toronto’s economic uncertainty and “the current health emergency” amid COVID-19. This announcement comes after Waterfront Toronto extended their decision-making time on whether or not to partner with Sidewalk Labs from the end of March to May 20.

Ryerson community members, including university president Mohamed Lachemi—who participated as an unpaid member of the Sidewalk Labs Advisory Council (SLAC)—became actively involved in this project and had mixed reactions when they heard about the cancellation.

In a direct email to The Eyeopener, Lachemi said he was “inspired by the vision and the potential” of Sidewalk Labs.

“I always felt that, if done correctly, Sidewalk Labs represented a great opportunity to attract the world to Toronto to help build the smart, sustainable cities of the future,” said Lachemi.

In September 2019, Lachemi wrote an opinion piece for Toronto Life on his support for the project and the potential partnership between Sidewalk Labs and Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Innovation.

“As a city-building university, it is in our DNA to imagine and lay the foundation—through research, innovation, and partnerships—for what the cities of the future could be,” said Lachemi.

In March 2017, Waterfront Toronto was in search of a potential partner to develop Quayside. In October 2017, Sidewalk Labs was selected to plan the community which they envisioned as a high-tech neighbourhood—a smart city. That month, Sidewalk Labs presented a smart city plan for a new neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront. It was expected to bring  “sustainability, affordability, mobility and economic opportunity,” according to their website

David Amborski, director and founder of Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development, said he doesn’t think COVID-19 is the only reason for the cancellation. 

“The Toronto real estate market is going through a recession right now because of COVID-19,” he said. “But in the long-run, the market should be back to normal by the time there is a buildout of Waterfront [Toronto’s] 12-acres.”

Amborski, who was also a part of Sidewalk Labs’ Affordable Housing Advisory Council, said the committee didn’t really get into details and focus on the basics of affordable housing. In addition, Amborski previously told The Eye back in January that the committee only had three meetings and the consultation “lacked in-depth conversation.“ 

According to the City of Toronto, a smart city collects information and data from residents, traffic and businesses to improve services in the city. 

In Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, the company stated that de-identified or non-personal data would also be “publicly accessible.” The project claimed to provide 44,000 jobs, affordable housing, follow climate-positive designs, and promote the use of “urban data” to improve the quality of life in the technology-driven community.  

However, since Sidewalk Labs branches from Alphabet—Google’s parent company—the project raised concerns amongst Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression (CFE) about data governance, privacy and surveillance as the Google affiliate company specializes in technology instead of land development. 

James Turk, director of CFE, said these questions remained unanswered because Sidewalk Labs is no longer part of this development project. He said although issues around data privacy are concerning, Sidewalk Labs gives Canadians an opportunity to discuss smart cities. 

“We have to decide what balance we want to have and how we want to approach these kinds of development,” he said. “Now that Sidewalk Labs is gone, all the issues that have been debated around [building a smart city] remain with us.”

Ann Cavoukian, a privacy expert and executive director of Ryerson’s Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence, served as a consultant with Sidewalk Labs for over a year but resigned in October 2018 due to data security concerns. Cavoukian said she wasn’t shocked when she heard about the cancellation of Sidewalk Labs. 

“I think [COVID-19] was a good excuse and it works for them,” said Cavoukian. “I don’t know [if] they were prepared to do all of the things that Waterfront Toronto was asking [and] requiring them to do.”

According to Cavoukian, requirements included the involvement of Quayside residents throughout the process and ensuring privacy protection.

Since her resignation, Cavoukian—who is also the former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario—has worked with Waterfront Toronto providing them with consultation on how to embed privacy into a smart city. 

Cavoukian said she would be “happy to involve” Ryerson in her work with Waterfront Toronto if Lachemi wanted.


  1. It would be great to see Ryerson U as part of the waterfront, best as part of a mixed-use development that actually occurs. Condo projects are too easy. Three years and over $16m of taxpayers money was spent by WT on the Sidewalk saga. It will be a total waste if hard lesson are not learnt. I am an optimist and can foresee several possible consortium partners, including Ryerson, to re-boot a new, better-perceived proposal at Quayside that is an improved match for the public interest while still making good business sense. It’s important not to give up now on encouraging other private-sector investment. But tread carefully as people must keep in mind that it’s very difficult to get anything done on Toronto’s waterfront. I know it first hand. While $ Billions of government (taxpayers’) funds have come and gone on the waterfront, it’s even harder to encourage private-sector investment. Yet good things can yet get done! Years ago our team at TEDCO had some success in developing a Portlands film studio using a public-private model, plus we built the iconic HQ for Corus Entertainment’s 1100 knowledge workers; as well as a number of small parks & environmental cleanups (we even went after past private polluters). But each one of those projects were very hard to accomplish and took a team approach… and tenacity. It will be interesting if the governments involved in the waterfront truly understand when & how this WT/Sidewalk saga went off the rails? With all the public money spent by Waterfront Toronto on Sidewalk, some of that should be salvaged and new opportunities for Canadian innovators, academic institutions (and, yes, foreign investors too) can still be encouraged.
    Jeffrey Steiner

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