Toronto the Smart? Situating Sidewalk Labs in a genealogy of the "smart city"

Authors: Sean Grisdale*, University of Toronto
Topics: Urban Geography, Urban and Regional Planning
Keywords: smart cities, urban planning, urban geography, Sidewalk Labs, Toronto, platform capitalism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2020
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Gold, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Majestic Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In October 2017, Alphabet’s “urban innovation” subsidiary Sidewalk Labs announced ambitious plans to develop a “smart neighborhood” on an undeveloped 12-acre section of Toronto’s waterfront known as Quayside. Two years later, despite mounting criticism from local groups concerned with the projects’ very premise (#BlockSidewalk, 2019), the possibility of the project going forward remains a real possibility. In light of this intense mix of interest and skepticism in the project, this paper aims to contextualize the Sidewalk proposal within the broader context of “smart city” urbanism’s trajectory in planning discourse. Firstly, through a discourse analysis of newspaper articles going back to 1987, I trace the genealogy of this “smart city” concept, situating it amidst a broader history of global economic restructuring. I affirm that today, the “smart city” is primarily deployed through various forms of “corporate storytelling” (Söderström et al, 2014; Morozov and Bria, 2018) significantly by technology companies increasingly interested in matters of urban planning and governance (Wiig and Wyly, 2016). I also survey that literature in critical urban geography (Hollands, 2008) that has heretofore assumed the task of deconstructing the term, to understand its trajectory both theoretically and as a subject of empirical research in the field. Finally, using Sidewalk Toronto as a case study, I investigate how this discourse has been received in the city since its announcement two years ago, thereby contextualizing a more local conversation amidst both a historical genealogy of the “smart city concept” and more recent critical understandings seeking to provincialize the concept globally.

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