A Smarter Toronto: Some Reassembly Required

On October 17, 2017, Waterfront Toronto announced that it had selected Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. and affiliate of Google, to be its partner in the development of “Quayside,” a 12 acre site for a smart city district on Toronto’s eastern waterfront. My research explores how Sidewalk Labs’ smart city project played out amongst various urban stakeholders in the initial phase of planning and consultation leading to a Master Development and Innovation Plan. Over the next 20 months, the Quayside project became a site of contestation over the production of a future neighbourhood “code/space” (Kitchen & Dodge 2011) and data governance (Artyushina, forthcoming).

My case study in progress, at the intersection of media and urban studies, examines the discursive struggle over the production of hybrid, urban space as it is conceived. As Goodman & Powles (2019) observe, Sidewalk Toronto was a “perfect storm for techlash, involving as it does issues of data governance, surveillance, efficiency optimization, information asymmetries, privatization, and hidden agendas.” To complement their analysis, I contend that the news media were actors at the centre of this storm in a context of dissensus. I go on to argue that we should understand the propose-and-push back movement between Sidewalk Labs and other actors with particular attention to the role of news media in writing the stories that present ethical issues about the use of technology and data. Sidewalk Labs has been performative in its self-representation to the public in the media and other fora; a key question is whether they engaged in what Kitchen (2019), following Zuboff (2019), calls “ethics-washing exercises designed to mollify opposition and facilitate the large-scale deployment of surveillance capitalism.”