Sidewalk Labs unveils blueprints, braces for more smart city backlash

Sidewalk Labs has released its blueprint for the Toronto Waterfront development, with the proviso that it will implement “the strongest governance regime for urban data in the world.” However, the plans are not going to quieten the raft of criticism that the Alphabet company is going to be hammered with, and Toronto could prove to be the battlefield on which the smart city future is decided.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is the standard-bearer for the Sidewalk skepticism, mostly due to the latter’s parentage. Were this a regular unaffiliated startup, we doubt this much contention would have arisen, but because Google is lurking, immense skepticism has met Sidewalk, amid claims of ulterior motives.

Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) has now been published, and it promises very fast broadband internet, an intelligent traffic control system, delivery robots, a smart energy grid for the area, improved waste collection, cycling enhancements, and smart street furniture for public interactions.

Of course, the trade-off is the data that will be generated by all this activity. Sidewalk says that it will still be collecting this data, which will be harvested from the 800-acres of redevelopment. Its proposed solution to the concerns is to house all this data in a Civic Data Trust, promising that this data will not be used for advertising or sold on, and that it can’t be shared without explicit permission.

But the likes of the CCLA do not trust Sidewalk here at all, believing that a company with the backing of the largest advertising firm in the world will undoubtedly find a get-out-clause or loophole in such agreements, or find a workaround that will still allow it to harvest all that sensitive personal data for commercial purposes.

Sidewalk promises that this is not the case, that impact assessments will have to be filed by anyone, including Sidewalk, to use data from the trust, and that open standards will be implemented so that anyone can access the data and compete or collaborate with Sidewalk. However, there’s a glaring caveat in that announcement, that “none of the ideas we’re presenting are fixed or final.” Cynics will argue that this is wiggle-room, while Sidewalk would say that this is to accommodate public feedback.

Sidewalk’s MIDP document is a whopping 1,524 pages long, and outlines how it will participate with the Waterfront Toronto agency. Sidewalk won the RFP back in October 2017, and since then, says it has invested $50mn to develop the MIDP, consulting with 21,000 residents.

For Toronto, Sidewalk is an important partner. The initial development project is focused on the Quayside and Villiers West districts, which comprise about 7% of the total Eastern Waterfront area. In turn, the Eastern Waterfront is about half of the total Innovative Development and Economic Acceleration (IDEA) district.

Now, if Sidewalk’s $1.3bn investment in Quayside and Villiers West goes well, the city can choose to apply the same strategy to the rest of the IDEA district. Sidewalk says that there is a $38bn opportunity in the IDEA district, by 2040, but of course, this begs the question of how Sidewalk is going to profit from a project that makes so much noise about being for the good of the public. Unsurprisingly, real estate accounts for the bulk of the money.

Local economic impact consultancy firm urbanMetrics said that the Sidewalk project will generate $4.3bn in annual tax revenues, add $14.2bn to the Canadian GDP, and create 93,000 jobs, by 2040. Affordable rental properties offered at below-market rates are sure to appeal to many, and a 91% improvement in pedestrian open spaces should make it an easier area to walk around in and hopefully enjoy.

Light rail expansions and heated cycle lanes are intended to address the mobility aspect, with an $80mn investment in a local timber factory intended to provide an environmentally sustainable construction capability. The smart grid and waste optimization aspects claim an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions too. Some $10mn in seed funding for tech startups is also being floated, and another $10mn for startups focused on urban innovation, and there is talk of profit sharing with the local government for technologies developed in the project.

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said at the unveiling “if we do want to solve these enormous urban challenges, it is never going to be doing it the way we’ve done it in the past. And what we think we’re offering here is a way forward for achieving the very elusive broad goal of inclusive growth. And so look forward to the public dialogue going forward and looking forward to interacting with any of you as well as time marches forward.”

However, Waterfront Toronto seems to be trying to temper the Sidewalk enthusiasm. Stephen Diamon, Chairman of the board, wrote in an open letter that “Waterfront Toronto has told Sidewalk Labs that the concept of the IDEA District is premature and that Waterfront Toronto must first see its goals and objectives achieved at Quayside before deciding whether to work together in other areas. Even then, we would only move forward with the full collaboration and support of the City of Toronto, particularly where it pertains to city-owned lands.”

Sidewalk’s Doctoroff said that it would be up to the local government if it wanted to proceed with development in the rest of the IDEA district, and that some of the disagreements are just an issue of semantics. However, you do get the impression that things could be a little strained behind the scenes. Sidewalk has a difficult balancing act to navigate.