The Rise And Fall Of Digital Initiatives For Toronto Retailers

Digital Initiatives For Toronto Retailers

It’s one step up and one step back for the retail community in Toronto. In the same week, the city’s Digital Main Street program got a boost from academia, while a high-profile smart cities project from Alphabet officially became a casualty of the pandemic.

The Digital Main Street initiative aims to help SMBs implement eCommerce and other digital capabilities built around online courses, training programs and a digitally-savvy squad of recent college graduates. The program was created by the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA), with direct support from the City of Toronto as well as Google, Mastercard, Rogers, Microsoft and Shopify. Add to that group the Schulich School of Business at York University, which on Tuesday (May 12) launched a new project called ShopHERE, aimed at helping the city’s Main Street retailers survive the pandemic.

As part of the project, 50 students from Schulich’s MBA, Master’s and undergraduate programs will be assigned to help Toronto’s small companies and artists move their businesses online at no cost. Among the goals is to launch eCommerce stores within days, activate them across marketing platforms and connect them to essential delivery solutions.

“The time to act in support of Toronto’s Main Street businesses is now,” said Schulich’s Entrepreneur in Residence Chris Carder, who spearheaded the engagement for Schulich. “We know our students will work with passion, focus and creativity in this important placement opportunity, and we’re thrilled to team up with Digital Main Street and its powerhouse team of technology partners.”

But unfortunately, the big-hitter project for Toronto has been officially iced. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs had been the main sponsor and tech provider for a smart cities project called Quayside, which had been in motion since October 2017. The decision was made to abandon the urban tech and design project when it proved to be too expensive in the current environment.

“For the last two-and-a-half years, we have been passionate about making Quayside happen – indeed, we have invested time, people and resources in Toronto, including opening a 30-person office on the waterfront,” said Daniel L. Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs in a post on Medium. “As unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community.”

Doctoroff also listed some of the technologies and other initiatives that Sidewalk would continue to work on.

“We’ve already started innovative companies addressing urban mobility, next-generation infrastructure, and community-based healthcare, and invested in startups working on everything from robotic furniture to digital electricity,” he said in the post. “We continue to work internally on factory-made mass timber construction that can improve housing affordability and sustainability, a digital master-planning tool that can improve quality of life outcomes and project economics, and a new approach to all-electric neighborhoods.”

Several smart cities blogs and analysts had soured on the project before last week’s announcement. The “Sidewalk Toronto” project was meant to be the “largest climate-positive development in North America,” and was slated to add 44,000 new jobs. “But concerns about how those decisions were made – and who benefited from such high-tech amenities – plagued the proposal from the start,” said an article in Curbed. “In the end, it still wasn’t enough to satisfy Sidewalk Labs’ detractors.”