Sidewalk Labs (Alphabet’s grand experiment in smart cities) will move forward with Toronto project

In the two years since Sidewalk Labs pitched its vision for a grand smart city development — encompassing an entire neighborhood on the Toronto waterfront — the project has been beset by controversy and criticism.

On one hand, the 12-acre project in Toronto’s Quayside district promised to be a proving ground for the latest thinking in sustainable design and technology integration into urban planning led by a subsidiary of one of the world’s most innovative technology companies. On the other, that same technology company has been instrumental in the development of a corporate, technologically enabled, panopticon that has an almost total view into our digital (and physical) lives through its search and mapping technology.

Giving that company the potential for unfettered access to the built environment in which Toronto citizens would move seemed like a step too far for many privacy advocates in the city — and around the world.

The public outcry had gotten so loud that the project seemed to be in jeopardy. That, in turn, likely would be an existential challenge to Sidewalk Labs, since the company’s work in Toronto was to be the early crown jewel proving out its ability to integrate technology into the built environment in a way that would benefit populations, the company argued.

Now, the project will move forward. Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto (the regulatory body overseeing the project) have come to an agreement that will limit the scope of the Sidewalk development and make the company work more closely with oversight agencies on the construction of the 12-acre parcel abutting Toronto’s parliamentary building.

We are encouraged by today‚Äôs decision by the Waterfront Toronto board and are pleased to have reached alignment on critical issues with Waterfront Toronto. We want to be a partner with Waterfront Toronto and governments to build an innovative and inclusive neighborhood,” said Sidewalk Labs chief executive officer, Dan Doctoroff, in a statement.

Sidewalk is making some significant concessions to move forward. Under the initial plan that the company submitted in June, it attempted to expand the scope of its development efforts beyond the initial 12 acres it had been bidding for. The company also wanted to be the lead developer of the land.

Instead, Sidewalk is acceding to the Waterfront Toronto counter-offer that it restrict its development to the 12-acre “beta site” initially carved out by the city. The company will also agree to work with Waterfront Toronto, which will lead a public procurement process for a developer to partner with Sidewalk Labs. Finally, Sidewalk Labs will also no longer lead the efforts to design and implement infrastructure. That’s now going to be handled by Waterfront Toronto.

“After two years in Toronto and engaging and planning with over 21,000 Toronto residents, we are looking forward to the next round of public consultations, entering the evaluation process, and continuing to develop a plan to build the most innovative neighborhood in the world. We are working to demonstrate an inclusive neighbourhood here in Toronto where we can shorten commute times, make housing more affordable, create new jobs, and set a new standard for a healthier planet.”

One of the sticking points that the agreement between Sidewalk and the city doesn’t address is what’s going to be done with all of the data the company will doubtless be collecting about the residents and visitors to this new intentional community.

Data privacy was one of the biggest concerns about the project. Indeed, at one point Sidewalk Labs proposed setting up an independent trust that would analyze and approve data collection in Quayside. The conflict between Sidewalk and its consultants drove one expert, Dr. Ann Cavoukian, to step away from the work she was doing. Cavoukian wanted the data collection to be anonymized before it would be collected by any entity, and Sidewalk Labs was not willing to make that commitment on behalf of third parties.

Even with concerns over data collection, the experiment in urban planning has merit. Integrating technology to improve efficiencies in construction, energy generation, energy efficiency, traffic management and telecommunications could create a roadmap that other developments could follow. That’s a good thing. But those advancements should not come at the cost of an even greater erosion of personal privacy.

Ensuring that Sidewalk Labs can thread that needle in Toronto could actually improve the company’s chances to create a quilt of technologically advanced communities around the world.