Alphabet tries to salvage its smart city plans in Toronto

Posted at 3:40 PM, Jun 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-24 17:40:59-04

Google’s parent company continues its attempts to sell Toronto on its controversial vision for a utopian city neighborhood.

Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation company of Alphabet, released a 1,524-page report Monday detailing plans to develop part of the Canadian city as a model neighborhood for the digital age.

Sidewalk Labs believes its innovations can make city living more desirable and affordable with less pollution, shorter commutes, better weather and environmentally-friendly buildings. It aims to start with 10 buildings and 2.7 million square feet of residential and commercial space and later expand to more of Toronto’s waterfront.

The project has faced a backlash since itsOctober 2017 announcement. Ontario’s auditor general released a critical report in December describing a rushed process to select Sidewalk Labs to develop the prime waterfront real estate near the heart of Toronto. Several officials, including the head of Waterfront Toronto, the organization leading the process, have resigned.

Critics ranging from politicians to advocacy groups and private citizens have raised privacy questions about the data Sidewalk Labs will collect, and say the company hasn’t provided enough answers. Intersections would be designed with sensors, tracking the movement of all people and vehicles. Sidewalk Labs says this will help move traffic swiftly and ensure walk signals leave added time for slow walkers, such as the elderly.

An oppositional movement has sprung up, #BlockSidewalk, calling for the project to be scrapped.

“Is this the exciting city of the future or an urban company town run by a data giant? I think it’s the latter,” said Charlie Angus, a Canadian parliament member who describes himself as a recovering digital utopian. “We are talking about wiring up urban spaces with a company whose business model is spying on everything we do.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association filed a lawsuit this spring to halt the project, arguing that Waterfront Toronto’s agreement with Sidewalk Labs is illegal and is violating privacy rights protected in Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Sidewalk Labs said Monday that it believes it will have the strongest urban data governance regime of anywhere in the world, and that its proposal exceeds existing Canadian and Ontario privacy laws. Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff described it as a historic plan.

“If we want to solve these enormous urban challenges it’s never going to be doing it the way we’ve done it in the past,” he said Monday. “We think you can actually produce a dramatic impact in urban life, that this can be a global hub for the urban innovation industry.”

The Waterfront Toronto board of directors and city council will vote as soon as this winter on whether to approve the project. But that may prove to be an uphill battle for Sidewalk Labs. In a news release Monday, Waterfront Toronto raised concerns, including whether Sidewalks Labs gets to be the project’s lead developer, and if the company should be talking about expanding past the initial development area. Waterfront Toronto also said it needs more information to know if Sidewalk’s data governance complies with laws.

This summer and fall the government and Sidewalk Labs will seek public feedback and evaluate the plan. Sidewalk Labs says it has already engaged with 21,000 people at events in Toronto to discuss the project.

Cybele Sack, a Toronto native and digital governance researcher, says the existing public conversation has been at a high level and fails to dig into critical issues of smart cities, such as how sensor data on streets or in buildings will be used and the biases of the algorithms powering the technology. She says there’s a dangerous knowledge gap between Sidewalk Labs and the general public, and is concerned about the unintended consequences of new technologies.

“Those hard questions on smart cities are bigger than Sidewalk Labs,” she said. “But if Sidewalk Labs wants to be the one to build these smart cities, they should be addressing these problems.”