The More Data, The Merrier? Sidewalk Labs May Be Sidelined in Toronto

In 2015, Google’s parent, Alphabet, decided the time was ripe for establishing a subsidiary in charge of investing in “smart infrastructure” projects – from waste to transport and energy. Its aim was specifically to implement such projects, transforming our urban landscape into a realm of dynamic and connected infrastructure pieces. Fast forward two years, and Sidewalk Labs had become embroiled in a smart city project covering a somewhat derelict (but highly valuable) area of the Toronto along the shores of Lake Ontario. 

Already in 2001, the Canadian metropolis set up the aptly named Waterfront Toronto (WT), a publicly-controlled corporation in charge of revitalizing the whole Lake Ontario waterfront along the city. WT then published early in 2017 a “Request for Proposals,” looking for an “investment and funding partner” for what would become known as the Quayside project. By the end of the year, the Alphabet subsidiary was chosen by WT.

It is important to note that this project was initially thought as a real estate one, and the desired innovation was to be found in building materials and carbon neutrality, while achieving certain goals in terms of social housing. There was no express desire for a model “smart city” of any sort, although the document does mention the usage of “smart technologies,” but always in the context of reducing building costs and improving the carbon footprint. 

Critics were quick to point out the puzzling choice; as innovative as it may be, Alphabet has no experience in real estate development. Rather, its core business is data processing and analytics, sometimes for research and often for advertisement purposes. What was meant to be a carbon-positive real-estate project seemed to be morphing into a hyper-connected (expensive) urban hub. 

And then came Sidewalk Labs’ detailed proposal. The visuals are neat; tellingly, there is not a single electronic device to be found in those pictures (is that one man on his cellphone?!) The words, however, tell another story. Carbon footprint and costs of building take a second seat to (personal) data processing: “Sidewalk expects Quayside to become the most measurable community in the world,” as stated in their winning proposal. One wonders whether the drafters of the proposal sincerely thought that, in this day an age, such a statement would fly with the public opinion. 

Critics of the project (who have since coalesced in the #BlockSidewalk movement) used the opportunity to dig deeper into WT itself, highlighting governance issues and the top-down character of the original Request for Proposals, beyond the plethora of data privacy questions (if not problems) the Sidewalk Labs proposal raised. In response, Sidewalk Labs deployed a vast campaign of public relations, whose success is far from guaranteed: they have “upgraded” their project, aiming for a bigger plot of land and even a new light rail plan (funded mostly on public money). At the time of this writing, WT has yet to make its final decision whether to retain the project of the Alphabet’s subsidiary. 

What lessons can we draw from this Toronto experience? “Smart city” projects are bound to become more commonplace, and while this one was not meant as such, some will be more straightforward in their aims. First, we should question the necessity of connecting every single thing and person. It matters to have in mind the social objectives of a given project, such as carbon footprint or building costs reduction. Collection of personal data can thus be articulated around and in function of those objectives, rather than as an end in itself. Connecting the park bench may be fancy, but for what purpose? More down to earth, the same question can be asked of street lights. 

As Christof Spieler reminds us in a recent tweet thread, certain municipal governments may be approached with “free” turnkey projects of connected infrastructure, in exchange (oh wait, it’s not free?) of both data and integration of the developer’s pre-existing systems into that infrastructure. Think of advertisements, and all the other possible monetization avenues… As Spieler points out, monetized smart infrastructure may come at a heavy social cost. 

Beyond that, one may wonder – who do we want as developers of such projects? Do we need the Sidewalk Labs of this world to realize the post-industrial heaven shown in the visuals of the Proposal? How will multinational data crunchers with an ominous track record make our cities smarter? The burden of proof is on them.