Tech companies might have some great ideas, but they should spend more time consulting with the people whose lives are going to be affected by them.
The need for that kind of outreach is evident in Toronto, where residents are upset with a Google affiliate’s plans to create a smart neighborhood; in Queens, where Amazon has faced backlash for deciding to locate half of its second headquarters in the New York City borough; and in Arizona, where Waymo’s self-driving vans have been attacked nearly two dozen times over the past two years by residents wary of artificial intelligence.
The disregard for public opinion also was evident in Pittsburgh last year as Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald courted Amazon’s HQ2 with a lavish package of giveaways and used various tricks to keep the details secret for as long as possible.
The government obsequiousness once reserved for professional sports teams has been extended to the tech sector as cities compete to lure the hippest companies, create the most jobs and cut the sexiest profiles. But people already living and working in a city shouldn’t have life-changing technology or highly subsidized corporate tenants foisted on them without a chance to weigh in. They shouldn’t be conscripted as guinea pigs, or their community made to serve as the beta proving ground, for the next big thing.
That’s what happened in Toronto. Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs won a contract to turn a 12-acre parcel into what Public Radio International’s The World called a “futuristic neighborhood” with autonomous shuttles, green buildings and data-driven operating systems. Objections have arisen to the way Sidewalk Labs won the contract, to the vast amounts of individual-level data that would be harnessed to make the smart city operate and to Sidewalk Labs’ quasi-government role.
In discussing his search for a site, Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff may have intended a compliment when he said “the single place that we thought was the best was Toronto.” He may have chosen Toronto, but Torontonians didn’t choose him or his Orwellian vision.
A similar angst underlies incidents in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, where people have thrown rocks at Waymo’s vans, tried to run them off the road and screamed at the vehicles and their human back-up drivers. In Queens, the objections to Amazon’s impending building project are more concrete; traffic congestion, a housing crunch and other changes will turn the neighborhood upside down.
Maybe because of the nature of their work, tech companies often lack a human touch. In Toronto, Queens, Chandler and, yes, Pittsburgh, it has cost their brands more than their apps can calculate.