Sidewalk Toronto is Cancelled – How a Waterfront Utopia Turned Into a Data Privacy Dystopia

In 2017, Google’s partner company, Sidewalk Labs, announced that they were investing in a $50 million project to transform an underdeveloped and underutilized plot of land along Lake Ontario in Toronto. Alphabet, Google’s sister company, affiliated with Sidewalk Labs and the Toronto Waterfront, pledged to construct a 12-acre ‘smart city’. The unique project, named Sidewalk Toronto, was a first for both partners. Sidewalk Labs declared that the plan was to transform the land into “the world’s first neighbourhood built from the internet up”. With connectivity underlying the entire project, the area, also named Quayside, would blend human-centred urban design with eco-friendly living and state-of the art technologies.

On May 7th 2020, Daniel L. Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, announced in a post on Medium, that the project was now cancelled due to the financial impact of COVID-19. He stated:

“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. But 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.”

The project aimed at addressing pervasive city issues, such as unaffordable housing, congestion and scarce services. Sidewalk aspired to provide a mix of fifty percent retail and forty percent below-market rate housing, which would include “a minimum of twenty percent affordable housing”. The company also predicted it could create 44,000 local jobs, raise $4.3 billion in annual tax revenue and stimulate at least $38 billion in private sector investments by 2040.

Traditionally physical infrastructure is fixed and rigid, thus Sidewalk envisioned adaptable multi-purpose architecture, meant to be easily adapted based for various functions and populaces.  Buildings were to be constructed using eco-friendly materials, such as mycelium insulation and be powered by renewable energy sources, including roof and wall-mounted solar panels.

Sidewalk also envisioned a place made for driverless transportation, smart sidewalks that melt snow, and where robots transport mail and garbage underground. To make way for more pedestrian friendly zones, non-emergency vehicles would be banned from some sections of the neighbourhood. The project also proposed an extension of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) and automated public transportation.

The proposal seemed to evoke a futuristic utopia, one that would be fully funded and paid for by Google themselves. But since its inception, Sidewalk Labs’ vision has been under scrutiny by privacy groups and concerned residents about how the Alphabet company would collect and protect data and who would own that data. A group of 30 Torontonians started a project called #BlockSidewalk, to push back against the entire proposal.

Toronto was to function as a model for other cities and as the proposal describes, “a global testbed where people can use data about how the neighbourhood works to make it work better.” The 24/7 collection of data from everybody who inhabits or passes through was a hot topic of debate among Torontonians and government officials alike. Sensors would track everything from pedestrian traffic, public safety and energy use to garbage disposal, sewage flow rates and environmental conditions.

A community layered with Internet of Things, connecting all systems and people has called into question concerns of data privacy and surveillance. On April 16th  2019, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association launched a lawsuit against Sidewalk Labs for their alleged authorization to have digital governance policy for the Quayside region.

Their concern had to do with the amount of real-time, personal data that would be collected. The use of “occupancy sensors” in offices and homes, streets cameras to track vehicles and traffic, could lead to real-life tracking of individuals, coinciding with how Google already use personal profiles and accounts to track people online. Although media headlines are not entirely optimistic, a poll conducted by Environics Research in February of 2019 revealed that fifty-five percent of Torontonians surveyed were in favor of Sidewalk Toronto, whilst a mere eleven percent were not.

Sidewalks’ 200-page proposal explained their concept of a digital layer, comprised of four sections all connected through API’s. The ‘Sense’ feature weaves together a dispersed network of sensors that gather real-time data about the environment, enabling people to measure and improve it. A ‘Model’ component which can simulate “what if” scenarios for city operations and inform long-term planning decisions. A ‘Map’ component that collects data on the infrastructure, buildings and shared resources. The ‘Account’ component which residents use to securely connect with and access public services and the public sector. The digital layer will be able to constantly transform, upgrade and innovate, revealing unprecedented possibilities for application designers.

Instead of home routers to access the internet, the project suggested the use of ‘software-defined networks’, spanning across the neighbourhood. This would make setting up networks easier for residents and can be available anywhere, such as public spaces and parks. This network would be achieved using a new technology called Super – PON (Passive Optical Network) developed by Google Fiber. Super – PON intends to increase internet accessibility by reducing equipment and costs. Sidewalk planned to submit the technology as an open standard, free for others to use.

According to Sidewalk, the use of data and how it’s being tracked would be transparent and they would not use any data for commercial or advertising purposes. They proposed to put the data in independent hands, those who would be responsible for removing personal information and keeping it secure. Nonetheless, multiple people have resigned from their jobs with Sidewalk Labs due to differences in opinion on data privacy because Sidewalk refused to unilaterally ban participating companies from collecting non-anonymous user data.

The Sidewak RFP proposed an “innovation and funding partner” for the site, one that would also “create the required governance constructs to stimulate the growth of an urban innovation cluster.” It was Sidewalk Labs' role to establish not only the urban data farming technology but also the legal and regulatory structures regulating it. As an entity spanning three levels of government, Waterfront Toronto essentially offloaded the task of shaping public policy to a for-profit tech giant. Although our public debate was dominated by concerns about the protection of individual data, the fatal issue was rooted less in protection than in privatisation.

In an email to Motherboard on April 24, 2018, Sidewalk Labs reconfirmed it wouldn’t sell data—but it also said “we are big believers in open data” and that it hoped “different groups and innovators” would be able to access (non-personal) data to contribute their ideas. Exactly how they would accomplish this remained somewhat of a mystery.

#BlockSidewalk is rejoicing over the cancellation of the project, stating that, “this is huge, we are sending a message to Silicon Valley on behalf of all those around the world who are fighting big tech in their cities,” says Julie Beddoes, one of the organizers with #BlockSidewalk.

Waterfront Toronto recognised Sidewalk Labs "for its vision, effort, and the many commitments that both the company and its employees have made to the future of Toronto.” Waterfront Toronto also said they would continue to seek input from both the public and experts to discuss alternatives inside Quayside to affordable housing, accessibility, climate change and other urban challenges. Mayor John Tory confirmed Waterfront Toronto's remarks, stating: "Our goal remains to ultimately build a neighbourhood focused on innovation in Quayside that will be the envy of cities around the world and a beacon for the future."

The question is, how could integrative services based on API’s, the cloud, IoT and microservices provide greater console to the privacy of our data for the benefit of all? Instead of being a cause for concern, how can this data be effectively used for the greater good of residents and visitors of Quayside?  Sidewalk Toronto is the prime example of how we can integrate our state of the art digital technologies in every day, urban life and not only in the background of business processes.


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