The Sidewalk / Waterfront Toronto Development

The Alphabet Sidewalk Labs / Waterfront Toronto development, “built from the internet up”, is an important test bed for the innovative application of information technology in civic life. It has the potential to help us understand what cities of the future might be like and is a major opportunity for Torontonians and others to influence it, not just for Canada but for cities globally.

The development is taking place against a background of heightened concern for the impact of information technology on people’s lives. Over the past two years, fairly widespread optimism and enthusiasm for the benefits that information technology can provide has been tempered by concerns about privacy, democracy, automation, quality and quantity of jobs of jobs, income distribution, the power of big tech and many others. The impact of information technology is now viewed with higher levels of suspicion and skepticism than it was a short time ago.

This is not surprising – information technology has been applied in many ways that support public good but also in ways that don’t. China’s social credit score system is a good example of application of information technology in an oppressive manner. The government assesses each individual’s online behavior and awards them a score based on conformance to government preferred behaviors. A high score can provide many privileges while a low score can mean restricted access to travel, housing, education, financial services etc. Information technology is applied to surveil citizens and to implement controls on their behavior.

The Chinese government argue that their social credit system enables provision of services. By creating ‘trusted’ individuals (with high social credit scores) enhanced services can be offered. Financial services may not require deposits or other sureties, education can be offered to those thought most likely to use it to contribute positively to society and social stability can be maintained by preventing travel and agitation by dissidents. The social credit system is presented as enhancing citizen life and used as a mechanism for increasing government control of daily behavior. This system is a very real example of how smart city technology can have a negative impact on society.

The Sidewalk Labs / Waterfront Toronto development includes widespread surveillance of citizen activity but this isn’t necessarily something that we should be concerned about. The issue is what is gathered and how it is used. The development is being advised by Ann Cavoukian, previously the three term Ontario Privacy Commissioner and creator of the approach known as Privacy By Design, where technology systems are designed to protect privacy, only gathering and using data in ways that maintain personal privacy. Sidewalk / Waterfront have provided assurances that privacy will be protected.

However, critics continue to express concern:

Latest proposals also give Waterfront Toronto and the City of Toronto more power in the relationship with Sidewalk, which appears to be an effort to respond to public insecurity about the control that Sidewalk will have over the project.

The assurances on privacy and the emphasis that is now placed on the role of public bodies (Waterfront and the City of Toronto) may provide some reassurance on privacy concerns. Attention should also be given to what the project will actually do. Continuing attention to privacy and corporate influence aspects is important – they are legitimate, reasonable concerns, but emphasis should also be placed on the opportunity that exists to shape the future of smart cities.

Ideas that have been made available so far, indicate a number of priorities for the development. These include space that is adaptable to the needs of residents, is environmentally responsible, incorporates near future transportation technologies and is designed around the Toronto climate. It will also provide some affordable housing and be a cluster of innovation.

Building technologies that are proposed will make it possible to alter the use of built space relatively easily. Walls will be able to be moved to alter living spaces for singles, families and seniors or between residential and commercial use. Public spaces will be able to change to meet resident needs, including roadways that will be able to quickly change configurations to suit traffic flows and community requirements.

The materials used in the development will be environmentally responsible. Locally sourced wood will be used and it is intended that design will enable energy use in heating and cooling to be minimized.

Self driving cars and other transportation technologies are included in the design – less parking space will be needed and technology will also manage the relationship between vehicles and pedestrians to enable these to operate more smoothly. Deliveries will take place via automated vehicles using tunnels under the development. Assurances are being offered that some affordable housing will feature, addressing the serious shortages that exist today. Roadways and walkways will be heated to melt snow and ice.

The designs that have been presented so far include maximization of the time that outdoor public space will be able to be used. Sheltering technologies will reduce the impact of wind (important on the waterfront) and enable heating and cooling that will allow people to spend more time outside in the Canadian climate.

Finally, the development is intended to contribute to innovation, becoming a space that will be attractive to innovators and create a cluster of innovative activity. This will partly be encouraged through commercial space that can be easily reconfigured, accommodate new businesses and support their growth, as well as the emphasis on public gathering space that will encourage the flow of ideas.

All of these developments would be supported by most people. In essence, the design objectives appear to be to achieve adaptability and apply and trial some new technologies, especially in construction, transportation and energy. Smart city ideas and practices are emerging rapidly with many new ways that information technology can be used to improve life. It is important, however, that we recognize and address concerns about these developments so that the many benefits can be realized.

Critics of the development are focused on three areas: privacy, governance and intellectual property. They argue that community data gathered will be used inappropriately by Sidewalk/Alphabet and others, that governance does not enable citizens to influence the development enough and that the intellectual property from the development should be publicly owned.

The development will gather data on the activities of its citizens which will be used for the design, operation and evaluation of the community and the technologies within it. Data breaches and inappropriate use of data by technology companies and others have led to increasing technology user apprehension in recent years. Residents of the development will likely have more data gathered about their activities than those living anywhere else.

Adaptable spaces and buildings, transportation, environmental and other aspects of the development will be influenced by citizen behavior data, arguably so it will best meet community needs. Over time the community and its services will be modified and improved as appropriate based on changing citizen needs, for example as seasons change, populations age and have children etc. An adaptable, data driven community might meet citizen needs more fully than has been possible in the past.

Development critics argue that the data gathered may be misused, either through use in targeting advertising or for other commercial purposes by Sidewalk/Alphabet. They argue data generated should be controlled and owned by citizens.

Governance questions are focused on the extent to which private companies control the design and operation of the development itself. The Sidewalk/Waterfront development has an unusual community governance structure. Waterfront Toronto is a creation of the Toronto municipal government, Ontario provincial government and the federal government of Canada. It is a public body that is empowered to make decisions on the Toronto waterfront area. While this structure enables innovation through rationalizing decision-making processes it may also raise concerns about the ability for citizens to influence it.

The development is proposed to be undertaken by Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto. This is a unique relationship which gives a large technology company (Alphabet) substantial influence over a residential/commercial development because of the significant role that information technology will play within it. Alphabet’s involvement enables innovation, but its power is viewed with fear by some people. Viewing this positively, it allows the development to benefit from Alphabet’s expertise and resources. Viewed negatively, it gives a very large corporation a potentially more intrusive community governance role. Critics have questioned how this role might be used.

The governance questions that the development raises require resolution, for Toronto and for future smart city developments. The relationship that is established in Toronto, between Sidewalk/Waterfront and the City of Toronto can provide valuable lessons for the relationships that might exist between tech companies and cities in the future.
Governance questions for the adaptable community at a local level also exist. The development features an ability to adapt and respond to citizen needs. In smart city developments elsewhere there have been efforts to apply technology to enable more effective participation in community decision making. Experiences and ideas from these efforts may be useful for the Sidewalk/Waterfront development. What we learn from it may be useful for others.

The development will generate intellectual property in a number if areas. The data gathered on citizen behavior and the broader experience of the technologies being trialed in the community will be of significant value to Alphabet and to the government bodies involved in the development. Critics argue that this value should be publicly owned and that Alphabet and other private organizations who may wish to access it should pay, that what they do with it should be controlled to ensure that it is appropriate.

The data generated by the Toronto development will be valuable for public organisations and private enterprises and will enable the development of public services and private products and services that can be commercially successful. Between these two is the potential for collaboration between the public and private sectors in the creation of products and services with public benefits – for example sharing of public transportation system data that can be used for a variety of profitable products that benefit consumers. The extent to which that data should be freely available or sold is debated. In the Toronto development the types and volumes of data will be significantly larger. Resolution of the questions that this poses for ownership of the data and the best means of advancing the public good will be necessary for Toronto and provide valuable lessons for others.

The Sidewalk/Waterfront Toronto development provides an opportunity to create a community within Toronto that can be beneficial for the people who will live there and be a test bed for the application of information technology in smart city developments globally. There are significant questions about how these questions may be resolved – there is no certainty that they will be resolved satisfactorily. But the benefits that it can bring mean that we should try.


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