Is high tech hurting Toronto?
The headlines have been juicy for some time now, as Toronto keeps piling up the tech wins, proving why it’s the fastest growing technology hub in North America. But social policy advocates say the celebrations need be put on ice while the powers that be in Toronto take a good hard look at how the tech boom has already transformed other cities like San Francisco, where social and economic inequality is now the worst in the US.
Even if Toronto gets passed over by Amazon in its hunt for a second headquarters (bookmakers are giving Toronto 9-1 odds on that one), the tech news has been good of late. In October alone, Google’s parent company Alphabet announced plans to build a smart, connected neighbourhood along Toronto’s east waterfront and Thomson Reuters Corp. said it plans to put down $100 million on a tech hub in the city, adding 400 new high-tech jobs. Toronto’s AI sector is growing, Waterloo keeps pumping out engineers for its talent pool and the country has a leader in Justin Trudeau who likes nothing better than to sing the praises of Toronto’s tech and innovation sector.
On the occasion of the Google Quayside development news, Trudeau said, “This will create a test bed for new technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities, which we hope to see scaled across Toronto’s eastern waterfront, and eventually in other parts of Canada and around the world.”
A glorious vision, to be sure, and one that we’ve heard many times before from tech denizens who see the smart cities movement —where sensors and data analysis are integrated with a city’s infrastructure and programs to create a more connected, more efficient and responsive civic environment— as ushering in a new wave of social justice and equality. Pair that with the scads of high-paying jobs and vibrant workforce that come from being a technology centre and you’ve got, they say, a clear picture of what a flourishing city of the future should look like.
But tech booms aren’t much different from other economic growth patterns in that along with the influx of jobs and money come problems in affordable housing and, if social programs and planning aren’t improved, a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
That potential was the topic of a University of Toronto-hosted panel discussion at the U of T’s downtown campus last week, where urban experts gathered to discuss the ramifications of Google’s Sidewalk Labs project and how smart cities need smart planning, too.
And hovering around that conversation was the spectre of San Francisco, whose current affordability crisis and social inequality many have blamed on its high tech sector.
Speaking to the topic, Patricia O’Campo of the U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health said, “[High tech] has done nothing for San Francisco in terms of reducing inequities. It has created a very inequitable environment with very high housing prices, a disappearing middle class and poverty has gone to the suburbs,” O’Campo said.
Why the blame? In San Francisco, unchecked growth is at the root. Here is Peter Cohen, co- director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations in San Francisco, speaking last year to the Guardian.
“The tech boom is a clear factor,” said Cohen. “When you’re dealing with this total concentration of wealth and this absurd slosh of real estate money, you’re not dealing with housing that’s serving a growing population. You’re dealing with housing as a real estate commodity for speculation.”
Not only is Toronto currently facing a similar real estate issue, a new report from the U of T and the United Way shows that the gap between rich and poor is now wider than anywhere else in Canada.
“That’s not a title we should wear with any pride,” says Michelynn Laflèche, vice-president, strategy, research and policy for United Way Toronto and York Region, and one of the report’s authors, in a press release.
As far as the dream of becoming Canada’s next Silicon Valley North goes, without the proper planning to combat these growing inequalities, Toronto might just get what it hoped for.