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Failure to innovate: Urban technocracy and the making and unmaking of Sidewalk Labs’ smart city

Published onJun 20, 2022
Failure to innovate: Urban technocracy and the making and unmaking of Sidewalk Labs’ smart city


The promise of technology and data-driven planning and design echo earlier efforts to introduce technical methods and scientific principles to address complex urban challenges. However, democratic principles may not be guaranteed within the “smart city” projects that serve as Trojan horses for alternative institutional designs. This essay examines related models of “innovation” in urban management through the legacy of administrative science and the data-driven visions of emerging tech-based, public–private partnerships epitomized by Sidewalk Labs’ work in Toronto. Enamored by the claims of efficiency in managing scarce resources, and largely lacking digital tech capacities among their ranks, municipal authorities are opting to partner with tech firms to address a broad range of challenges related to urban management. However, rather than create efficiencies, the danger of private-sector innovation is that it may, at its best, attempt to reinvent the wheel to address basic urban management issues—while at its worst, it may result in the transfer of power away from public sector agencies through institutional designs that privilege powerful corporate actors (such as Google). In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs did not just provide a sexy vision of data-driven urban innovation—as encapsulated in the name of its proposed Innovative Design and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) District—it sought to establish an autonomous city zone excluded from democratic oversight and governed by itself as the “lead developer of real estate.” Sidewalk Labs now serves as a cautionary tale for smart city models across the world for reimagining the science of urban management. Moving forward, we might reflect on the original aims of administrative science to inform how urban data analytics and smart technologies may be better integrated into more democratic forms of municipal administration rather than serving as vehicles for profit-seeking and the obviation of democratic oversight.

Keywords: Sidewalk Labs, smart city, governance, bureaucracy, innovation


In 2017, a new Google offshoot called “Sidewalk Labs” was granted the opportunity to develop a smart city vision along Toronto’s waterfront. From afar, the overarching narrative that Sidewalk Labs had crafted was a project about the future of the city: an urban tech hub that represented “an innovative new development model for how the private sector can support the public sector in tackling the toughest growth challenges” (Sidewalk Labs 2019a, 17). But by August 2019, it became apparent that the project was nearing the final chapter of what one observer called an “urban development thriller” (Haggard 2019). After months of scrutiny and criticism following the release of Sidewalk’s Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP)—which proposed an expansive 300-acre Innovative Design and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) District—its partner (and oversight agency), Waterfront Toronto (WT), faced political and public pressure to scale the project back to its original 12-acre area and rein in other proposals for public investment. Ontario Premier Doug Ford called it a waste of taxpayer money, making high-level political opposition clear (Benzie and Rider 2019). Local opposition groups had railed against surveillance and the potential privatization of public resources proposed by the foreign tech behemoth since early 2018. Dismayed by the opposition, the Toronto Star’s editorial board penned an op-ed that pleaded with the public and local politicians not to “settle for more of the same on Toronto’s waterfront” (Star Editorial Board 2019). The op-ed blamed the apparent end of the line for the project on the machinations of the local development industry, which it claimed would prefer to “plunk down banal condos” instead of compete with the futuristic smart city vision of Sidewalk Labs. But the op-ed only drew more ire from opposition figures, such as Wylie (2019), leader of #BlockSidewalk, who had, for months, highlighted the inadequate public outreach, ambiguity over intellectual property and data ownership, fears of digital surveillance, and general ineptitude in the oversight of the entire process. Still, for some proponents, anything new would be better than the copy-paste condos that currently lined the waterfront—save for then-Toronto-City-Councilor Doug Ford’s comic, failed proposal to build a megamall, a casino, a boat-in hotel, and “the world's largest ferris wheel” (Church 2011). Thrillers and comedies aside, the making and unmaking of “Sidewalk Toronto” reveals the challenges of putting major smart city initiatives into practice but also what the stakes are in their implementation—made more apparent in their blundering failure than in their quiet success.

This article examines the implications of smart city innovation projects for how cities are being governed and what urban design and the rhetoric of “innovation” often obfuscates. As many scholars have examined, a wide array of smart city initiatives are being driven by major tech firms, such as IBM, CISCO, and Google, which generally seek to leverage urban development projects as test beds for new technologies that can optimize urban service provision (Shelton et al. 2014; Wiig 2015). However, the expansion of these experimental projects often fail to live up to their techno-utopian “visions” at great public expense (Flood 2011; Evans, Schliwa, and Luke 2016; Jacobs 2019; Jeon 2020; Lorinc 2021). Sidewalk Labs’ proposal went far beyond testing smart city technology, affordable housing, flexible service delivery, and the like. It proposed the establishment of an autonomous district with its own urban technocracy designed and influenced by Sidewalk Labs and, by extension, Google. This aspect of the proposal should not be discounted as external to the broader smart city project; these institutional designs reveal what is at stake beneath the rhetoric of smart city innovation-ism than simply the application of sensors and operationalization of data. The issue at hand has less to do with the application of technology and more to do with the organizational and institutional framework in which these policies are proposed and implemented. The case in Toronto serves to illustrate continuing attempts to cede power from the public sphere and further privatize urban governance, monopolize expertise, and weaken accountability through what some scholars have referred to as a “consultocracy”—a form of contracting technocratic managerialism through public sector consulting (Saint-Martin 1998; Raudla 2012; Ylönen and Kuusela 2018). Likewise, we should take a closer look at how the rhetoric of “innovation” mobilizes smart city urbanism to further neoliberal policy aims that attempt to bypass democratic oversight and that, in the end, makes urban governance less democratic.

There is an increasing emphasis on “innovation” in urban governance across the world to support economic productivity, competitiveness, urban service provision, affordability, and job creation (OECD 2019) or what the OECD (2007) has previously called the “entrepreneurial paradigm in spatial development.” Typically accomplished under the auspices of “innovation labs” in municipal government and elsewhere, these projects consist of partnerships across academia, the private sector, and philanthropic organizations that purport to improve government accountability and efficiency in urban management through the use of technology and the collection of data from sensors embedded in the urban environment that can optimize infrastructure functionality and help governments and service providers make evidence-based decisions (Hall et al. 2000; Harrison et al. 2010). Developing this “innovation ecosystem” carries with it the notion that the public sector will embrace a more entrepreneurial form of experimentation (Leitner 1990; Peck 1995; Hall and Hubbar 1996; Jessop 1997; OECD 2007) through ICT-based solutions and public–private partnerships (PPPs) with the promise of boosting its competitiveness in the global market (Graham and Marvin 20221). Underlying many of these narratives is a techno-utopian view of the city as a “system of systems” wherein the problems of the city can be identified and provided a technical solution (Söderström et al. 2014; Wiig 2016) and often play on the political economy of “place” by turning spaces into marketable assets through “place-making” or establishing “innovation districts,” “innovation zones,” and other privatized enclaves to attract creative class professionals and global investment (Mcguirk and Maclaran 2001; Florida 2022; Zimmerman 2008; MacLeod 2011). While there is optimism in the potential for smart city innovation to enhance citizen engagement (Townsend 2013), other scholars have been critical of the neutralizing rhetoric and neoliberal underpinnings of smart city innovation (Swyngedouw 2005; Greenfield 2013a; Kitchin, Lauriault, and McArdle 2015; Rossi 2016; Cardullo 2020), arguing that the data that supports smart city models of governance are never neutral or nonpolitical. Rather, the framework for collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data is more often shaped by sponsors’ ideological perspectives and interests rather than in the public interest (Townsend 2013; Greenfield 2013b; Kitchin 2014; Kitchin, Lauriault, and McArdle 2015). Similarly, corporate-driven smart city initiatives have raised fears of the privatization of public resources or services (Hollands 2008), technological lock-in and monopolization (Hill 2013), surveillance capitalism (Zuboff 2016; Cecco 2019), the revival of industrial-era company towns by tech megacorporations (Taggart 2018), or the assetization of everything, such as infrastructure, space, or data, as a new form of techno-feudalism (Birch and Muniesa 2020). These fears are not necessarily unfounded. A 2021 bill in Nevada would have allowed tech companies to establish their own local governments under the rubric of “innovation zones” to set their own rules and test smart city technology (Williams 2021; "Nevada Innovation Zone Facts" 2015).

First, I contextualize the institutional design of smart city innovation within a broader legacy of urban governance efficiency projects prior to advances in cybernetics and computational technology in the 1970s (see Light 2003a; Goodspeed 2015). Instead, we might find greater legibility for whom the legal and regulatory frameworks of cities have been retooled in the work of Bureaus of Municipal Research established in cities across North America and the world from the 1910s to the 1960s. These bureaus drew on scientific management and successfully promoted the transfer of organizational practices from business to government in the early twentieth century, foregoing movements to enhance citizen participation and ensuring governments were more responsive to the interests of local elites and development interests. I then examine how these urban governance “ecosystems” have expanded beyond local business elites and development interests to include transnational philanthropic organizations and giant tech firms that aim to “test” new approaches to urbanism (Swyngedouw 2005). Second, I look at key events in the development of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal and highlight critical aspects of the proposed governance structure to illustrate the antidemocratic vision latent in models of smart city innovation beyond the elements of tech-driven urban design. Third, I examine what is at stake in these models through the role of data in the organization of power and alienation from social and economic governance—fundamental aspects of what Beer (1973) called “cybernetic praxis.” Likewise, as Molotch (1976, 309) argued, quantification of the city lacks the “crucial dimension of social structure: power and social class hierarchy.” We must look beyond techno-utopian narratives and technological deterministic critiques that treat cities as if they were like computers instead of collections of citizens (Mattern 2021). Finally, I conclude with reflections on the future of urban democracy in the context of the organized power of multinational tech firms, philanthropic organizations, and higher levels of government that are mobilizing within the rubric of “innovation.” Is there really anything new or innovative here? Are we just settling for more of the same?

A brief history of urban technocracy

In the 1970s, Molotch (1976) pushed back at simplistic, quantitative definitions of the city in terms of population and density. Instead he emphasized the social mechanics of urbanization through what he called an “urban growth machine”: the expression of the interests of local land-based elites, contractor unions, local media, and other benefactors of growth across the political spectrum. These coalitions, made up of wealthy philanthropists and boosters, have long played a central role in (re)shaping urban governance in order to enable growth opportunities suitable to their pecuniary interests (Fitch 2014). In the early twentieth century, wealthy philanthropists funded Bureaus of Municipal Research that successfully introduced reforms aimed at taming the wasteful excesses of democracy through expert-led bureaucratization of municipal corporations (Schacter 1995; McDonald 2010; Lee 2013). Beginning in New York City, such bureaus were established in cities across North America and the world in the early twentieth century, which successfully introduced scientific (evidence-based) management principles to city governments considering a wide range of urban issues. For example, Toronto’s Bureau of Municipal Research, established in 1914, published over 800 documents covering a range of topics, such as housing, transit, environment, education, and the waterfront, until its closure in 1983 (Eidelman and Hoke 2020). The Bureaus of Municipal Research movement also played a key role in establishing the field of public administration and promoting a process of “bureaucratization”—the professionalization and organization of experts—to address major urban problems that many believed stemmed from the waste and incompetence of highly politicized and often corrupt government administration.

In the early days two key principles drove the work of the bureau. The first principle, “expert-led managerialism,” focused on the efficient organization of the municipal corporation, including accounting, budgeting, personnel, representation, working methods, service delivery, and all else in the management of urban issues. The second principle, “efficient citizenship,” maintained that citizens should play an active and informed role in the governance of the city as shareholders within the municipal corporation. Under this principle, citizens would be informed about the city budget, services, and other issues through easy-to-understand pamphlets and rate their services through scorecards that would inform politicians and administrators on what the public’s thoughts were. Despite the need for large-scale communications infrastructure to exchange information, the bureau emphasized accessibility, maintaining that “any part of the investigation which the public cannot be made to understand is not worth undertaking” (Allen 1912, 386). This would make administration of social affairs more transparent and political representation more direct and accountable to citizens. However, the agenda of efficient citizenship was short-lived. Schachter (1997) traces the rise and fall of efficient citizenship in the early days of the Bureau of Municipal Research movement, which was largely funded by the philanthropies of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Cutter, as well as local financiers, industrialists, and landlords. To these elites, efficient citizenship was too radical in challenging the status quo. In 1914, the bureau was restructured at the behest of Rockefeller, effectively eliminating efficient citizenship from the agenda and, thus, for the most part, public administration, leaving expert-led managerialism as the central principle of research (Schachter 1997, 11-16). With the absence of efficient citizenship, the prevailing attitude toward democracy in these circles was summed up by Hopkins (1912, 240), a trustee of the bureau, who declared that the “municipal research method” was founded on the principle that “the majority has no right to impose wasteful and incompetent government upon the minority.” What waste and whose incompetence, of course, their method would surmise. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, most Bureaus of Municipal Research went defunct or changed their name under new sponsorships due to funding shortfalls, but the influence of the bureaus extended to all levels of government through the study of public administration, which fundamentally reshaped urban governance across North America.

In the 1960s, the managerialist governance project was well suited to leverage the practical advancement of systems thinking through computational technologies and cybernetics. The trans-adaptation of cybernetics from military use to address other organizational problems also brought defense think tanks, major philanthropies, such as the Ford Foundation, and city governments together to harness the modeling frameworks, analytical processes, and predictive capacities of cybernetics to tackle myriad urban management problems of the time (Light 2003b). But by the 1970s, in the wake of a recession and fiscal crises, a period of austerity was imposed on local governments. Most famously, a cash-strapped New York City was told to “drop dead” (Van Riper 1975). Under the conditions of austerity, neoliberalism was ascendant, and local governments were left to embrace a more entrepreneurial model of governance Goodman 1979; Leitner 1990; Hall and Hubbar 1996; Jessop 1997; Wood 1998; OECD 2007; Sager 2011). Harvey (1989) traced the gradual shift from managerialism to entrepreneurialism under neoliberal austerity, including the emboldening of urban growth coalitions that now had much more financial leverage over city governments.

While neoliberal policy continues to evolve, the entrepreneurial form of governance remains dominant in many ways today. With fewer fiscal resources available to local governments, external sources of funding are even more necessary to procure, which empowers the private sector through PPPs, where risk is often assumed by the public in its pursuit of competitive advantages. Central to the aims of PPPs and urban growth coalitions is the marketable value of “place.” Unlike “rationally planned and coordinated development,” the success of place-based entrepreneurialism hinges on the attraction of external investment (Harvey 1989, 7; Logan and Molotch 2007), which may be enticed through tax breaks, land, or other subsidies and inducements. Along with these giveaways, more and more activities are also extended beyond the formal political sphere of government through informal institutional configurations in what Swyngedouw calls “governance-beyond-the-state,” which “operates through a range of geographical scales, and mobilizes a wide assortment of social actors, including private agents, designers, architects, and planners, nongovernmental organizations, civil society groups, corporations, and the more traditional forms of local, regional, or national government” (Swyngedouw 2005; 2010).

The entrepreneurial language has changed little in the context of smart city innovation, as illustrated in a 2019 report by Bloomberg Philanthropies and OECD titled Enhancing Innovation Capacity in City Government that “shows that establishing a culture of innovation whereby municipal staff are encouraged to experiment, take risks and learn from failure is a key enabler and driver to innovation; and so are external partnerships that can supplement or help develop internal capacity” (OECD 2019, 3). Without identifying any real problems cities are facing, it reads as innovation for innovation’s sake. The actual meat of the report is included in a checklist for “enhancing innovation capacity” at the end of the report that is provided to “guide city leaders through the complexities of strengthening their organizational and administrative arrangements for innovation,” which effectively encourages municipalities to outsource critical thinking and the implementation of nearly all programs through external partnerships—municipalities would simply monitor feedback in order to review and revise programs and digital products provided by its partners (OECD 2019, 95-96). This is a far cry from the work of the Bureaus of Municipal Research but highlights just how far the Bloombergs of today’s world have come compared to the Rockefellers of the past. However, what has not changed is the disproportionate power of elites to reshape the institutional framework of urban governance and thus remake the city according to the cultural, economic, and political inclinations of their class, masked by the neutralizing, post-political rhetoric of “efficiency” or “innovation.” Only now, expertise has been shifted from inside the government to the external consultant or contractor, arguably at arm's length from formal democratic accountability.

Building an innovation ecosystem “from the internet up”

The drive toward “innovation” in neoliberalism is driven by a deep-seated cynicism toward government. However, a paradox is clearly evident in the governance innovation project, where “conscious” rational planning emanating from the elite power and formal political authorities of government is being replaced by smart city cybernetic systems that elevate “unconscious” decision-making processes rooted in “the market.” However, the self-organizing, market-based systems are being designed by the very experts and governments that these systems are supposed to replace (Mirowski and Phlehwe 2015; Davies 2017). In transforming the formal politics of government into “cybernetic systems of digits, machines and prices (including those of markets),” what remains, claims Davies (2017, 230) “is a type of elite power which interprets what is on the screen, explains what it means, converts it, into narrative, but possesses no authorship or authority over it.” The irony is that the critique of this kind of expert-driven power-knowledge is a foundational pillar of neoliberalism (Hayek 1942) —even the Wall Street Journal (certainly not a bastion of anti-neoliberalism) has called out “Big Tech and Big Finance” for their hubristic scientism (Swanson 2021). In the absence of formal political responsibility, what is left of governance is a loose network of consultant-driven decision-making (Hood and Jackson 1991; Craig and Brooks 2006) or, worse, the de facto privatization of governance.

The business model of Sidewalk Labs is emblematic of this kind of neoliberal attitude toward government. In 2016, CEO Daniel Doctoroff outlined the goals of the fledgling Sidewalk Labs to “accelerate urban innovation” in the face of pessimism toward government’s ability to address problems such as crumbling infrastructure, housing affordability, and reliable jobs. Characteristically hubristic from its inception, the company modeled itself as a think tank founded on a thought experiment—imagining what it would mean to start from scratch and build a city “from the internet up.” Doctoroff embodies the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley giant Google and the neoliberalism of the New York City mayoral administration of Mike Bloomberg. Tapped by Google to lead Sidewalk Labs in 2015, Doctoroff previously served as CEO and president of Bloomberg L. P. and deputy mayor for New York City under Mayor Bloomberg, where he led the development of Hudson Yards—the elite enclave funded by major public subsidies (Haag 2019) and diverted EB-5 funding meant for distressed communities (Capps 2019). Summing up Doctoroff’s view of government, in a 2021 interview, he said that the Bloomberg mayoral administration “strove to become a customer service liaison for the city’s business community” emphasizing the need to bring “other parts of the government together to solve problems” (Florida 2021), presumably the problems of their “customers.” When asked what stifles his creativity, he answered with one word: bureaucracy.

Another key actor emanating out of the New York City “innovation ecosystem” is Bloomberg Philanthropies. Styling itself as a driver of “government innovation,” Bloomberg Philanthropies supports initiatives to transform government to take on more of a private-sector feel. A key component of this neoliberal innovation charge at the center of Bloomberg Philanthropies is the Innovation Teams program, which was established in 2011 with the goal of spreading “a culture of creativity and risk-taking within local government” (Castillo 2021). Since then, it has provided program grants to over 40 city governments across the world. Within this innovation economy framework, its proponents hold that government is simply one actor among many, on the same level as corporate enterprise, creatives, and institutions, within the urban market system. However, the government should still use its privileged position within this network to cultivate and support the “innovation ecosystem” made up of creative technicians that both disrupt and optimize networks of finance and development with investment opportunities colored by the allure of technology and creativity.

The origins of the Sidewalk Toronto project are rooted in Toronto’s entrepreneurial pursuit of place-based economic development along its post-industrial waterfront, the Port Lands. After a failed Olympic bid centered on the Port Lands in 2008, the Olympic task force was transformed by the City of Toronto, Province of Ontario, and government of Canada into the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation, later renamed “Waterfront Toronto.” After receiving a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies in March 2017, the City of Toronto established its own Civic Innovation Office to lead on the principles of “government innovation” across city departments.1 WT launched its own innovation initiative—the Resilience and Innovation Framework for Sustainability—and issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a 12-acre development site called “Quayside.” Despite having no authority over parcels in Quayside and “limited experience in digital data infrastructure development” (OAGO 2018, 689), WT made a foray into the smart city approach that was driven by a need to boost investment opportunities, likely due to its running out of seed capital (OAGO 2018, 680). Perhaps most characteristic of this “consultocratic” setup was outlining of a key responsibility of the prospective partner in the RFP to “create the required governance constructs to stimulate the growth of an urban innovation cluster, including legal frameworks (e.g. Intellectual Property, privacy, data sharing), financial considerations (including investment opportunities and revenue sharing expectations), deployment testbeds and project monitoring (KPI’s, reporting requirements and tools to capture data)” (Waterfront Toronto 2017, 17).

Thus, the intention was to allow for the partner to define the rules of the game for developing the area in question from the outset. In October 2017, WT, in a press conference alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, announced the selection of Sidewalk Labs as its innovation and funding partner for the Eastern Waterfront, starting with the development of the Quayside site (Sidewalk Toronto 2017), despite the smart city tech company having no experience in urban development. This was supported by an investment of $62 million by Alphabet for the initial phase of planning (Galang 2017). It was “a match made in heaven,” in the words of one commentator, “a government agency with no experience in data/intellectual property/smart city governance working with a company with no track record in high-level urban development. What could go wrong?” (Haggart 2019, 79).

With WT on shaky ground even before the project started, trouble only compounded. From the outset, confusion as to how the partnership with Sidewalk Labs would evolve beyond the initial agreement, WT’s conflict of interest in the partnership, its lack of authority over the Quayside parcels, and fears of surveillance created public distrust. Throughout 2018, several high-profile resignations over data collection and privacy concerns, vague nondisclosure agreements, and the potential privatization of public resources did not help the public image of the project (Canon 2018; Roth 2018a, 2018b; Muzaffar 2018). In reaction, WT established a part-time Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP), revealing that it lacked even a basic grasp of foundational issues of smart city development that had become the central concern of resignations. But it made little difference. In December 2018, three WT board members were fired by the provincial government (Rider 2018), likely precipitated by a report by the Ontario’s auditor general that roundly criticized oversight of the project. In February 2019, discussions were leaked revealing that the project would expand to cover 300 acres of Port Lands beyond the Quayside site, which included a light rail extension in exchange for development fees and property taxes, including revelations that Sidewalk Labs had registered nearly 80 lobbyists in the city, province, and federal governments (Deschamps 2019; Rider 2019). Subsequently, #BlockSidewalk, an activist group, was formed in opposition to the project, while the Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a suit over the plans.

In June 2019, in the midst of mounting opposition, Sidewalk Labs released its MIDP. There was a bit of irony, though: for a company that seemed to embody “anti-bureaucracy” in its approach to “urban innovation,” the document contained nearly 1,500 pages that proposed the creation of the 300-acre IDEA District to be managed by an independent public administrator that would oversee five new “management entities,” effectively duplicating the activities of existing municipal departments. These new bureaucratic entities included the Waterfront Transportation Management Association, Waterfront Sustainability Agency, Waterfront Housing Trust public–private financing agency, Open Space Alliance , and Urban Data Trust (UDT). See Table 1 for an overview of their responsibilities and related activities of existing departments.

Entity Name

Description / Scope

Proposed Relationship to Administrator

Method of Formation

Funding Mechanism

Waterfront Transportation Management Association (WTMA)

The WTMA, in conjunction with the city’s Transportation Services Division and the Toronto Transit Commission, would (1) implement mobility policy objectives for the IDEA District; (2) oversee planning, operations, and maintenance of new mobility-related infrastructure, such as dynamic streets; and (3) manage the district’s four advanced mobility systems, including the mobility subscription package.

An administrative unit of the IDEA District public administrator

Established with the creation of the IDEA District

Capital and operating expenses would be funded by revenue from on-site parking garages, curb pricing, and the sale of mobility packages.

Waterfront Sustainability Agency (WSA)

The WSA would oversee the operation of four advanced sustainability systems in the IDEA District: the thermal grid, waste management system, advanced power grid, and stormwater management system. This includes monitoring compliance with master service agreements (MSAs), including user rates, seeking MSA enforcement where required, and compiling and reviewing key operator performance metrics.

An administrative unit of the IDEA District public administrator

Established with the creation of the IDEA District

Operational expenses would be funded by fees paid by system operators.

Waterfront Housing Trust (WHT)

The WHT would be a public–private financing entity that administered a below-market housing program in the IDEA District. The trust would improve funding predictability for developers and harness new private affordable housing funding sources.

A private trust; the IDEA District public administrator to serve as sole trustee

Established at the discretion of the IDEA District public administrator

One initial source of funds for the trust would be a fee paid for condo resales.

Open Space Alliance (OSA)

Serving as a steward of publicly accessible spaces, with community input, the OSA would pursue the following objectives: (1) a dynamic, well-programmed, well-maintained public realm that benefits the community and city; (2) a seamless public realm experience that creates a unique sense of place and generates value for the neighborhood; (3) the conditions to explore technology to improve access, programming, operations, and maintenance of open space; and (4) a viable mechanism for long-term operations, including sustainable funding and public–private-sector knowledge-sharing.

An independent nonprofit operating within the geography of the IDEA District

Established as an independent nonprofit; to enter collaborative management agreements with the city and third-party landowners to manage open space programming, operations, and maintenance

Operations and capital expenses would be funded through private financing from landlords or tenants in the IDEA District; traditional city parks funding; and revenue from sponsored events, special elements, and concessions.

Urban Data Trust (UDT)

The UDT would govern the collection and use of urban data in the IDEA District. This new governance entity would promulgate responsible data use guidelines, review applications for collecting and using urban data, and ensure nonsensitive urban data is publicly available by default to spur innovation. All entities would need to apply to the UDT and receive approval before collecting or using urban data in or from the IDEA District.

An independent nonprofit operating within the geography of the IDEA District

Established as an independent nonprofit; to enter into agreements that govern the collection, use, disclosure, and storage of urban data

Each applicant seeking to collect or use data in the IDEA District would pay a data collection and use administration fee to cover the costs of the UDT.

Table 1: Summary of management entities. Source: Sidewalk Labs (2019c, 222–223).

In addition to these urban management agencies, Sidewalk Labs also proposed to establish a nonprofit skills training school called “Sidewalk Works.” Sidewalk Labs also proposed an Urban Innovation Institute, which would be a focal point in connecting Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Innovation and the University of Toronto’s School of Cities to a larger innovation ecosystem funded through an initial seed grant of $10 million by Sidewalk Labs. It is not mentioned how the operating structure and governance model would be devised, but the centrality of Google within the district and Sidewalk Labs’ seed grant may tell us a lot about the power that Alphabet could exert over these matters. More significantly, Sidewalk Labs launched Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP) in partnership with Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan to develop “next-generation infrastructure systems” proposed for the district. The aim of SIP, as outlined in the MIDP, would be to independently manage the district’s smart grid, green infrastructure, water, and sanitation, including the rate structures “with protections to prohibit monopolistic pricing” (Sidewalk Labs 2019c, 78). Another key component is the proposed expansion of the light rail, which could be financed through “innovative self-financing mechanisms” if public financing were not available. Additionally, the MIDP proposed the creation of a central community hub called “Civic Assembly” and partnering with Toronto-based nonprofit Digital Public Square to help establish the Quayside Neighbourhood Association (so much for an independent resident’s association). In order to implement its plans, Sidewalk Labs also identified regulatory adjustments and reforms that would need to be considered by the city and provincial government (Sidewalk Labs 2019c, 224-232). In an extensive review of these proposals, Blayne Haggart and Natasha Tusikov pointed out immature these arrangements were, given that they were based on “an assumption that the current distribution of services and responsibilities among multiple government departments is necessarily inefficient” (Haggard 2019, 29).

Figure 1

Map of project location, including Quayside, IDEA District, and the Eastern Waterfront area of interest. Source: Sidewalk Labs (2019c).

While the bureaucratic elements of the proposal appear to solve practical management issues in a quite traditional top-down manner (even if based on immature and risky assumptions), what is more important is that it serves to conceal the structuring of power through district governance. A major driver of the economic success of the IDEA District would be the centrality of Google Canada headquarters within the innovation ecosystem. Sidewalk Labs itself would develop regulatory standards that the public administrator and other agencies would enforce, effectively making itself a de facto governmental body (Haggart 2019). Through their outsized investment capacity and control over standards, Google and Sidewalk Labs could effectively influence several new institutions, such as an Urban Innovation Institute and the district’s several management entities. In effect, the entire district would be controlled by Alphabet through its network of corporate ownership and the vastly disproportionate economic power compared to an organization such as WT (which also had been suggested to take the position of public administrator). Sidewalk Labs also proposed that it would formulate development regulations, which would effectively place itself in control over how new developments should be made smart city friendly, which meant that Sidewalk Labs could establish regulations that could directly or indirectly specify that its own (future) products be used. What the MIDP lays out is in essence a proposal for Sidewalk Labs’ own bureaucratic fiefdom requesting that the government grant these powers in the name of “innovation.” The entire district is designed to be an autonomous quasi-public–private municipality replete with the powers of taxation through user fees but no indication of democratic oversight. It assumes that users would “vote with their feet” (or at least through their smartphones) while only being given a narrow selection of service choices, if any choice at all.

None of this would come to fruition, however. In the face of significant pressure, WT issued a conditional approval of the MIDP in October 2019—so long as Sidewalk Labs addressed “threshold issues,” which included taking an ax to the entire proposal for the IDEA District, maintaining a competitive bidding process, which the MIDP did not foresee, and clarifying digital governance and intellectual property concerns, which Sidewalk Labs had kept abstract throughout the process (Waterfront Toronto 2019). Despite ongoing criticism, it was not until May 2020 that Sidewalk Labs announced that it would no longer pursue the smart city venture on Toronto’s waterfront, citing the uncertainty brought by the COVID-19 pandemic (Doctoroff 2020)—an easy out in the midst of WT’s rejection of the essence of the MIDP, significant public distrust, and political scrutiny.

Innovation as neoliberal technocratic praxis?

The bureaucratic implications of the MIDP proposal reveal much more about the smart city innovation project than what appears to be a blunder by Sidewalk Labs and WT. Despite apparent rhetoric to the contrary, smart city innovation projects are bureaucratic projects—they serve to organize power through the control over information collection and dissemination, purport to objectively frame the identification of problems and solutions, and shift the very framework of decision-making and resource distribution away from formal politics to informal networks of expertise. However, the public’s concern was not nearly as much over the obvious bureaucratic machinations of the proposal as much as it was over data collection, surveillance, and informed consent. These fears, coupled with the lack of the kind of political acumen that local urban developers use to fly under the radar, may be more to blame for Sidewalk’s defeat. Likewise, a combination of techno-optimism and a belief in the neoliberal underpinnings of smart city innovation may be more of a driving force for Sidewalk Labs (and those like it) rather than some nefarious aim to subvert democracy. On the contrary, the idea that smart city systems can enhance democracy by supporting a clearer feedback loop between service providers and users is a core assumption of smart city innovation (Bencardino and Greco 2014). But concerns over organizational power and transparent data governance are not mutually exclusive. The public’s reaction is demonstrative of how society can be alienated via technology from the modes and processes of governance. It is here that information in the form of data plays a crucial mediating role between governance (the framework through which decisions are made and resources invested) and the reality (or the public’s perception) of what is being measured and assessed. To clarify what is at stake in the Sidewalk Toronto project, we must interrogate the role data (and technologies that rely on them) play in the organization of power and society’s alienation from social and economic governance.

Data are never simply “raw” but always in mediated form and shaped by the ideological perspectives and interests of those that collect, analyze, and interpret them (Townsend 2013; Greenfield 2013b; (Kitchin 2014; Kitchin, Lauriault, and McArdle 2015). Thus, when it became apparent that the formulation of data governance protocols and the UDT by Sidewalk Labs was developed without any obvious public engagement or input (DSAP 2019, 9-10), red flags were raised. In reviewing the MIDP in August 2019, DSAP, a group of academic, urban technology, and legal experts, recommended relinquishing control over data governance standards to WT and the government (2019, 24). Likewise, as with the expert-driven managerialist practices of the era of Bureaus of Municipal Research, what was considered a “problem” is often codified in the collection and framing of data by some preconceived idea of what a solution might be. For example, protecting the minority’s interests from the imposition of wasteful and incompetent government by the majority was prefigured into its “scientific assessment,” and bureaucratization in support of urban development was always the solution. This is akin to “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This logic is also illustrated in DSAP’s criticism of MIDP as “tech for tech’s sake” (DSAP 2019, 21). Throughout the panel’s commentary, Sidewalk Labs was repeatedly criticized for proposing a complex technology innovation for a problem that “that isn’t necessarily really a problem” for “a thing that may not need a technology solution” (DSAP 2019, A-19). MIDP failed to provide clear objectives for providing “innovative” technological services or why data needed to be gathered in the first place. Another key issue here was that many of the technology-based proposals would amount to “spending public money/resources on things that aren’t top priorities or solving problems that distract attention/divert resources from bigger issues” (DSAP 2019, A-16). The question of public resources and their “diversion” is not just a technical question but central to questions of democratic governance and the bureaucratic organization of power.

In The Rise of Network Society, Castells (1996) provides a rather commonsense distinction between the organizational form of bureaucracy and enterprise. Bureaucracies are “organizations for which the reproduction of their system of means becomes their main organizational goal,” while enterprises are more dynamic “organizations in which goals, and the change of goals, endlessly reshape the structure of means” (Castells 1997, 171). Ignoring the origins of bureaucratic organization in the industrial enterprise, the organizational principles of tech firms, such as Google, almost sound a lot more like Castells’ definition of bureaucracy than they fit a model of enterprise that operated on the expansion of the “systems of means”—technologies of exchange from which to extract rent through monopolized control over market-based transactions. While other search services exist, Google’s search and ad system is so ubiquitous that users and advertisers have effectively no choice but to use Google’s platform. Google has free rein to configure protocols and rules for how the system works. This is also the business model behind most private-sector utilities employed by the public sector that own the infrastructure for service provision (i.e., electricity, water, broadband)—consumers have no effective choice between services provided; even when other private options are available, they are often more expensive (Sidewalk Labs’ proposed campus-based smart grid should be evaluated along these lines). Smart city models of governance are not anti-bureaucracy. On the contrary, digital technologies have extended and shifted bureaucratic organization into networks of governance-beyond-the-state where a “less visible, but no less powerful digital bureaucracy,” Muellerleilie and Robertson (2018, 205) argue, also serves to “produce legitimacy for the governance mechanisms of neoliberal market society” through the appearance of efficiency and convenience.

An example of network-based, digital bureaucratization was most clearly illustrated in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2015. General concern with disinformation and the potential for government intervention forced platforms such as Facebook and YouTube to establish additional bureaucratic mechanisms to monitor content and provide a modicum of accountability (at least to organizations such as the Atlantic Council). But even the hybrid mix of human and algorithmic oversight is coming under scrutiny. Who should oversee the removal or censoring of content within this system? What protocols and rules are appropriate? While opponents of bureaucracy have long criticized it as a rigid hierarchical structure, the fact remains that it is difficult to have accountability without some form of organizational hierarchy—someone must answer to someone else if things go wrong. Is this not the cornerstone of any notion of democracy? Early organograms of city bureaucracy produced by Bureaus of Municipal Research used to have “the electorate” or “voters” at the top of the hierarchy (New York Bureau of Municipal Research 1915; Philadelphia Bureau of Municipal Research 1924) which at least nominally recognized the role of elections in holding decision-makers to account. The key difference then, within the public and private bureaucratic network, is that the public generally has some accountability mechanism based in formal democratic institutions, whereas accountability mechanisms in private bureaucratic networks are driven by the market (i.e., profit).

Another key issue at the foundation of Sidewalk Toronto may also exist outside of the MIDP and concerns the mechanisms of accountability in Canada’s federal structure itself. In addition to criticizing oversight over the project by WT, the auditor general’s 2018 report also raised concern over the role of federal and provincial government pressure on WT, including questionable high-level political support for the proposal in its initial stages (OAGO 2018, 691). The appearance of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alongside Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt in the initial announcement of Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside selection raised eyebrows, as critics wondered what was going on behind closed doors (Craig 2018; Sidewalk Toronto 2017). Where was the public in all of this? Sidewalk Labs’ lax public outreach was sugarcoated in the aesthetics of participatory planning—concerned mostly with trivial details like material palettes and programming—absent deliberation over how the district would be governed, data and all (Mattern 2020). Only after the conclusion of “co-design sessions” did Sidewalk Labs propose management entities and its district governance structure. It was not until the formation of #BlockSidewalk in 2018 that a DSAP was even considered. Even then, public outreach was hurried, filled with too much abstract jargon, or simply nonexistent.

Figure 2

Drawings of people interacting with technological interfaces of Sidewalk’s smart city; Source: Sidewalk Labs (2019b)

Data and technology can alienate citizens from the processes of economic and social governance. Feelings of alienation were evident in the fear of surveillance and the lack of transparency over data ownership on behalf of Sidewalk Labs. In the MIDP proposal, almost everything is mediated by digital technology. Volume 2 (Sidewalk Labs 2019b) is chock full of examples of users and service workers interacting with digital maps and instructions for how to operate smart city systems. Sidewalk Labs shows us the appearance of freedom in creative tech drag—only circumscribed within the protocols of the city-as-app where the application of technology becomes self-perpetuating. There is no shortage of things to measure and activities to monitor or automate and thus (hopefully) to monetize. Data becomes the source of value (Graeber 2015, 41), which means that control over data is control over the circuits of exchange. Questions of control and alienation were also traversed in a failed project of equal fame to Sidewalk Toronto. In the 1970s, Project Cybersyn, a visionary project led by Stafford Beer, aimed to allow the administration of Salvador Allende to manage the Chilean economy through cybernetic systems (Medina 2011). The project team proposed to establish networks of mass data collection that would capture inputs and outputs within the economy, which would be analyzed and controlled through a centralized, digital command interface. Reminiscent of the ideas of Efficient Citizen decades before, citizens would also have mini switchboards at home from which to rate governmental performance in near real time. The project would never be fully operationalized, though, as a coup d’etat deposed the Allende government, quashing the experiment in September 1973. In a lecture several months before the Chilean coup, Beer (1973, 20) remarked on his vision of “cybernetic praxis in government,” stating that “society can no more afford the alienation of the people from the processes of government than it can afford their alienation from science.” For Beer, the solution to alienation from social and economic governance was the cybernetic interface that could connect leaders directly to the subjects of their policies and citizens directly with their leaders. But we must question how much the interface and data-based media can address the problems of alienation alone. The proliferation of platform services comes with additional protocols of exchange and service agreements to govern data collection and exchange. Most of this bureaucratic system is split between the ease and beauty of elegant interfaces that mask the network of contracts and data extraction protocols that only serve to alienate users from how their data are being used (even beyond the fine print). What remains is paranoia after news breaks of data scraping and manipulation by firms such as Cambridge Analytica. Without transparency and an understanding of the civic frameworks within which they are situated, smart city innovation’s inevitability will likely be met with even more paranoia and be at the expense of debate over the institutions of democratic accountability.


Smart city innovation-ism is much more than the application of sensors and operationalization of data. The institutional designs that Sidewalk Labs proposed in its MIDP reveal the underpinnings of a neoliberal governance framework that shift power over urban development to nondemocratic spheres within “the market.” However, the irony is that while Sidewalk Labs imagines its creative and innovative approach as the antithesis of bureaucracy, the formal proposal resulted in a bloated bureaucratic management framework and a host of “tech for tech’s sake” encapsulated in a repetitive 1,500-page final report. Designed to give a sense of propriety, the proposed institutional configuration of the IDEA District would effectively give Sidewalk Labs (and Google/Alphabet) significant influence over the governance and operations of the district. Thus, this shifting of power to nondemocratic spheres is not accomplished through apps and private data collection platforms but through normal legal, organizational, and institutional (re)design.

Like urban governance projects earlier in the early twentieth century, the reality of urban development has been far more antidemocratic than we would like to imagine. The role of wealthy elites and growth coalitions are factors that should not be overlooked when defining the city. Managerialism has not disappeared; it has merely been shifted away from formal politics to informal networks of expertise. For now, the drive toward “innovation” embraces a model of entrepreneurial governance that shifts the provision of services onto the market, paid for—in part or in whole—by the reliability of tax dollars or through philanthropic donation where returns may be made downstream. Needless to say, the ideological setting seemed to be ripe for Sidewalk Labs to waltz in. Despite plenty of smart city failures to learn from, Sidewalk Labs’ lack of transparency and inadequate outreach only served to foster distrust and paranoia. Behind-the-scenes machinations of politicians and development elites should not be discounted, but this would not have been a great factor if public trust had been more effectively sought. But could firms such as Sidewalk Labs or Alphabet make adequate concessions in the public interest that could instill that trust without hurting their business model? To do this would also require reflection on their hubristic approach to “urban innovation.” Reminiscent of Doctoroff’s musings of building a city “from the internet up,” Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, said at the outset of the project, “we started thinking about all the things we could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge” (Hook 2017). He then added with a laugh, “that’s not how it works, for all sorts of good reasons” (Hook 2017). These words are even better in retrospect and serve as a warning for continued dependency on external consultants for the development of public policy. Reliance on “the market” for the provision of urban services also leaves knowledge in the hands of private interests, where questions of what should be done are answered by those with the most money to purchase influence and monopolize expertise.

Measuring the city is not simply an expert technique; it is a social act. Since data are collectively produced, they are representations of social phenomena. Whether the measurements are of buildings, infrastructures, zones, or ecologies, all are representations of social relationships between people, not just parts of systems to be optimized or test beds for technological products. Similar to the principles of efficient citizenship of the early twentieth century, Cardullo and Kitchin (2018) raise the idea of “smart citizenship” where residents play active, instead of passive, roles in antithesis of neoliberal models of smart city governance. Defining the city must take into account the social structure and the organization of social life. What do people need? Instead of “disruption” and “innovation,” we may think about how to build a city with maintenance and care, as suggested by Mattern (2018). We might also reflect on how technology is being used and whether it is really necessary at all or simply “tech for tech’s sake.” Most important of all is to reflect on how governance is being designed, starting first in the sphere of formal politics. How should these institutions be designed to be more responsive to all citizens, not just a few? Are our institutions accountable to the majority or the minority? We should emphasize more the inspirational work being done in the realm of civic technology that centers the needs of the majority and contrast these efforts with privatized visions of the smart city. The Barcelona Digital City initiative was founded on open data, inclusivity, and democracy and fights against privatization of infrastructure and surveillance capitalism (Graham 2018). A related project called “DECODE” also promotes “data sovereignty”—the public ownership over data infrastructures and open-source technologies as opposed to private ownership. Data literacy programs are also being pursued in cities across the world, but these must also be combined with civic literacy. The application and extension of smart city technologies will continue apace. We must think critically about how these technologies are being applied—they will either further alienate people or bring them closer to the processes of government. We should also remember that technology and data are simply the means, but our institutions will determine what and whose ends they will serve. Measuring the city is not the same as defining it.

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