The Future

Toronto’s very dumb “smart city” project

A proposed partnership with Google’s Sidewalk Labs is shaping up to be a calamity.
The Future

Toronto’s very dumb “smart city” project

A proposed partnership with Google’s Sidewalk Labs is shaping up to be a calamity.

In October 2017, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau extolled to a buzzing crowd the promise of what would become one of the biggest public-works boondoggles in recent Canadian history. Waterfront Toronto, a tri-government organization that manages Toronto’s waterfront revitalization, and Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, had just entered a partnership to develop a 12-acre unused industrial site on the city’s eastern waterfront, Quayside. The planned neighborhood would include new residences and businesses, and transport links to the downtown core. Trudeau declared that Sidewalk Labs would “create a test bed for new technologies in Quayside. Technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities.”

To say the initiative has gone awry would be an understatement. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours later, privacy, regulatory, governance and feasibility concerns abound. Waterfront Toronto, and all three levels of the Canadian government, are facing a lawsuit from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which argues that Waterfront Toronto has exceeded its authority by approving the agreement, and that the project puts Canadians’ rights at risk.

Corporations co-opt the notion of the “smart city” to extend their reach, without proper consideration for the views of residents.

In recent months, Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have been at loggerheads on a number of issues, including the breadth of the initiative and concerns over how residents’ data would be used. But yesterday, after “significant movement” from the firm on a number of its initial proposals, Waterfront Toronto’s board voted unanimously for the project to proceed.

Despite the years of hype, the sheen on smart cities projects, which incorporate technology into municipal services with the aim to enhance residents’ quality of life, has faded. Critics highlight how project designs disregard anxieties about informed consent and privacy, and present plans woefully underdeveloped and overambitious. Corporations co-opt the notion of the “smart city” to extend their reach, without proper consideration for the views of residents. Local governments, which should safeguard citizens against such exploitation, have responded inadequately.

With promises of reduced crime, decreased traffic, and greater convenience, smart city projects have long been lauded as a logical step in an ever more connected world. And there is a kernel of truth to these claims. The McKinsey Global Institute, for instance, suggests that these efforts, at their best, can lead to significant improvements in sustainability, including a reduction in emissions by 10 to 15 percent and water consumption by 20 to 30 percent.

But smart city projects ask inhabitants to give things up in return, like, for example, privacy. A study from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that 56 of 176 surveyed countries actively use artificial intelligence for surveillance purposes as part of smart city or “safe city” initiatives. (Safe city projects are those that bring together municipal authorities, law enforcement and businesses in an effort to minimize crime.) And when public responsibilities are outsourced to firms, democratic accountability is another.

The assignment of such democratic responsibilities to a corporate actor is exceptional

What has happened in Toronto puts these concerns into focus. The story began in March 2017 when Waterfront Toronto launched a formal search for an “Innovation and Funding Partner” that would help transform the Quayside into a “globally significant community that will showcase advanced technologies, building materials, sustainable practices and innovative business models.” Waterfront Toronto’s pursuit was problematic from the get-go. For one, the organization called for a partner that would jointly “[c]reate the required governance constructs to stimulate the growth of an urban innovation cluster.” While smart city projects often involve some collaboration between private and public entities, the assignment of such democratic responsibilities to a corporate actor is exceptional.

Seven months later, with much fanfare, Trudeau celebrated the selection of Sidewalk Labs. In his remarks, the prime minister suggested that he and then Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt had discussed the possibility of such a collaboration for “a few years now,” giving the impression that the federal government had a favored candidate in mind. “This was a deal that was cooked up by the government and that Waterfront Toronto itself became a willing partner [in],” said Thorben Wieditz, a member of Block Sidewalk, a citizen-driven campaign against the project, in a phone interview. (Waterfront Toronto submits that it followed “a rigorous procurement process” and considered multiple applicants.)

The vision in Sidewalk Labs’ selected proposal is bold. It outlines a pioneering urban project, centred around sustainable and safe transportation systems, and efficient and affordable housing. The firm would create “adaptive traffic lights” that would prioritize cyclists and pedestrians and study the possibility of autonomous transit options. Innovative building materials, such as timber, and new occupancy models, like “co-housing”, would offer green, reasonably-priced housing for Quayside’s residents.

And sensors, lots of sensors. The scheme describes sensors to measure air quality, noise levels, weather patterns, traffic flows, and emissions, to name a few. The upshot is that “a vastly expanded array of fixed-sensor inputs and control outputs will generate an enormous amount of data on the built environment,” according to the proposal.

Along with a promise to move Google’s Canadian headquarters to Toronto’s eastern waterfront, Sidewalk Labs pledged to invest $50 million in public consultations and long-range planning over the next year, which would conclude with the publication of a Master Innovation and Development Plan. In theory, this document would “form the basis for the Quayside development and any subsequent revitalization of City-owned lands in the [e]astern [w]aterfront,” and address many of the concerns that critics had about the plan from the outset.

From the time of Trudeau’s comments at the October 2017 public announcement, there were questions about whether Sidewalk Labs’ connection to the prime minister’s office had influenced the selection process, and what the company’s ultimate goals really were. There was the airing of Sidewalk Labs’ ambition to broaden its efforts to a 750-acre area of the waterfront. Waterfront Toronto’s authority and capability to lead the project was probed by the Auditor General of Ontario. In meetings with the public, Sidewalk Labs struggled to answer questions about where and how residents’ data would be stored.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the publication of Sidewalk Labs’ hefty 1,500-page master plan this June, which had been delayed in part due to these controversies, didn’t stem the tide of unease. Rather than the 12-acre area it was hired to develop, the firm presented a plan for a 190-acre region. (It seems Sidewalk Labs too eagerly read into Waterfront Toronto’s suggestion that the company “may be integrated as appropriate” into later, more extensive, revitalization efforts.) In an open letter to the Chair of Waterfront Toronto, Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner said that the plan outlined “an insufficient role for the City [government] given its experience delivering municipal services in the public interest.”

And many of the ideas outlined in the master plan are unusual, if not unnerving. In response to Waterfront Toronto’s ask for governance support, it describes a public administrator that would oversee five new agencies, each with authority over different elements of the project, ranging from infrastructure management to data governance. Putting aside the extensive regulatory amendments that would need to occur for any of this to go forward, what emerges is a private company proposing public governance models.

Sidewalk Labs’ initiative in Toronto is just one of a number of recent high-tech urban development projects. In November 2018, after a bidding war of tax breaks and development incentives involving hundreds of cities across North America, Amazon announced that Arlington, Virginia would be the site of the company’s second headquarters. The tech giant plans to build new office buildings and develop “privately-owned public spaces,” such as parks and playgrounds, all premised on innovative and sustainable design. In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman plans to build a futuristic global hub, Neom, in the northwest of the country, where “[e]verything will have a link with artificial intelligence, with the Internet of Things.”

Really, the Toronto debacle is just a new twist on an old idea — that supposedly forward-thinking private interests should make decisions about how a city should run, and not the people who live there. Sure, these firms may proffer opportunities, like jobs and affordable housing, but, if these promises are fulfilled, they come at a cost. In Quayside, for one, this means increased surveillance from sensors put in place to monitor everything from pedestrian traffic to noise levels. Quayside residents will also have less control over the management and administration of their neighborhood. You can’t vote out a company come election time.

And, for all their puffery, numerous failed (or failing) smart city project raise questions about the capability of firms, and in many cases municipalities, taking on these efforts. Songdo, South Korea’s smart business hub, recently went bust, in part due to legal disputes between private companies involved in the effort. Fewer than half the planned offices have been built, and vacancy rates are dismally high. India’s Smart Cities Mission, an initiative aimed at developing 100 smart cities across the country, has been plagued by delays and unmet goals.

And, of course, there’s the project in Toronto. In yesterday’s announcement, Waterfront Toronto does make clear that Sidewalk Labs will rein in many of its most controversial ideas. For one, the firm’s proposed efforts will be restricted to the 12-acre Quayside area, rather than the 190-acres described in its master plan. Waterfront Toronto will now lead the project’s digital governance and privacy efforts, domains where Sidewalk Labs would initially have played significant roles. And there are other measures. More public consultations will take place in the coming months and, by the close of March 2020, Waterfront Toronto’s board will make another decision about whether to move forward with the initiative.

Yet, despite these concessions, there’s no doubt corporations’ recent moves into the realm of digital urban development should continue to be viewed with skepticism. “It’s not anti-tech or anti-innovation to say, ‘let’s think this through,’ let’s make sure that the right laws are in place to protect people,” said Brenda McPhail, Director of the Privacy, Technology and Surveillance Project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, in an email about the Sidewalk Labs project.

And it’s clear that many waterfront residents share these sentiments. A survey from this past July found that 60 percent of respondents in Toronto “would not like to live” in Sidewalk Labs-run Toronto. “I believe that if Waterfront Toronto were to agree to [Sidewalk Labs’ master plan], even if amended from its present form, it would lose the trust and respect of the community and set us on a dangerous path,” Torontonian Julie Beddoes included in a written submission to Waterfront Toronto during its public consultations this summer. “Toronto’s waterfront is not a resource to be exploited by large corporations but a precious public asset to be used for the long-term well-being of its citizens.”

In the name of building a smarter municipality, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto have alienated many of the people who would be living in their urban paradise. “[C]omprehensive data collection that allows people’s activities and behavior to be analysed can harm individuals and groups by facilitating discrimination [and] when people feel watched, they may hesitate to exercise their rights to free speech or protest,” said McPhail.

If there are to be trade-offs for living in a “smart city”, then the process by which Sidewalk Labs has come to Toronto indicates what the biggest of those may be: a city truly accountable to its residents.

Sabrina Wilkinson is a researcher and writer keen on all things digital policy.