Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A data-driven “neighborhood of the future” masterminded by a Google corporate sibling, the Quayside project could be a milestone in digital-age city-building. But after a year of scandal in Silicon Valley, questions about privacy and security remain.
On a Tuesday night in August, Jesse Shapins, the director of public realm and culture at Sidewalk Labs, flipped through a set of colorful slides before a public audience in downtown Toronto.
On view were design ideas for Quayside, the 12-acre mixed-use neighborhood that Alphabet’s city-building subsidiary has planned for the city’s waterfront. “How might we create a people-first city in the digital age?” asked Shapins, who wore a heavy beard and round red spectacles.
The slides showed an alluring urban scene, full of organic-looking outdoor spaces with lush palm fronds and multi-story outdoor terraces. Quayside’s multi-story structures, Sidewalk Labs reps explained, would be made from composite timber, a construction style touted for its lower environmental impact and aesthetic warmth. Powered by a zero-emissions microgrid, buildings would be modular, with small private units and all-year common spaces adaptable to different uses. On the street, pedestrians and cyclists would get highest priority amid shared, low-speed autonomous vehicles roving about. Tiles capable of melting snow, absorbing stormwater, and directing traffic with LED lights would form the pavement underfoot.
The renderings, observers may note, look distinctly un-Toronto-like. Canada’s capital of commerce is somewhat grey and austere—not unlike the urban centers of Great Britain, its former colonial master. Perhaps the festive, colorful renderings represent an effort by Quayside’s planners to strike a more welcoming tone than the one evoked by the “Big Brother”-esque surveillance feature at the heart of this proposal: the data-gathering infrastructure more or less built into the walls.
In the past few months, Sidewalk Labs seems to be downplaying this aspect of the development. For example, nary a mention of the word “data” was heard in this presentation in August. That’s a problem, according to critics. Nearly 11 months into the company’s original, one-year consultation agreement, Sidewalk Labs has provided little information during the public engagement process about how data gathered at Quayside would be owned and used. That has advocates, researchers, and other involved in the project worried about exactly what the tech company wants with Toronto, and who gets left with the bill.
Quayside was billed as “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up,” according to Sidewalk Labs’ vision plan, which won the RFP to develop this waterfront parcel. The startup’s pitch married “digital infrastructure” with an utopian promise: to make life easier, cheaper, and happier for Torontonians.
Everything from pedestrian traffic and energy use to the fill-height of a public trash bin and the occupancy of an apartment building could be counted, geo-tagged, and put to use by a wifi-connected “digital layer” undergirding the neighborhood’s physical elements. It would sense movement, gather data, and send information back to a centralized map of the neighborhood. “With heightened ability to measure the neighborhood comes better ways to manage it,” stated the winning document. “Sidewalk expects Quayside to become the most measurable community in the world.”
That somewhat Orwellian vision of city management had privacy advocates and academics concerned from the the start. Bianca Wylie, the co-founder of the technology advocacy group Tech Reset Canada, has been perhaps the most outspoken of the project’s local critics. For the last year, she’s spoken up at public fora, written pointed op-eds and Medium posts, and warned city officials of what she sees as the “Trojan horse” of smart city marketing: private companies that stride into town promising better urban governance, but are really there to sell software and monetize citizen data.
“Smart cities are largely an invention of the private sector—an effort to create a market within government,” Wylie wrote in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper in December 2017. “The business opportunities are clear. The risks inherent to residents, less so.” A month later, at a Toronto City Council meeting, Wylie gave a deputation asking officials to “ensure that the data and data infrastructure of this project are the property of the city of Toronto and its residents.”
In this case, the unwary Trojans would be Waterfront Toronto, the nonprofit corporation appointed by three levels of Canadian government to own, manage, and build on the Port Lands, 800 largely undeveloped acres between downtown and Lake Ontario. When Waterfront Toronto gave Sidewalk Labs a green light for Quayside in October, the startup committed $50 million to a one-year consultation, which was recently extended by several months. The plan is to submit a final “Master Innovation and Development Plan” by the end of this year.
But there has been no guarantee about who would own the data at the core of its proposal—much of which would ostensibly be gathered in public space. Also unresolved is the question of whether this data could be sold. With little transparency about what that means from the company or its partner, some Torontonians are wondering what Waterfront Toronto—and by extension, the public—is giving away.
After all, Sidewalk Labs is a sister company of Google, the world’s largest search engine and digital advertising company. Monetizing the data that users hand over is the business model that has propelled Google to its status as an IT giant, capable of tracking and guiding society’s desires, decisions, and movements—highly valuable capabilities marketers want, too.
But in Quayside’s case, it’s not clear how, or who, would pay for Sidewalk Labs’ ambitious building plans. Some observers surmise that selling data is likely part of the financing mix.
Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of urban planning at the University of Toronto with expertise in project financing and delivery, serves on a transportation advisory panel for the Quayside project. He told me that Sidewalk Labs’ core business plan presents a barrier to the public’s ability to seriously evaluate the project. “How does Sidewalk Labs make any money? You expect them to want a return on investment, being affiliated with Google and having a long-term interest,” Siemiatycki said. “Is it an old-fashioned real estate development plan? Or is it like Google, where you pay in terms of data and advertising?”
Also hazy is how consent to data collection would work. In a web browser, users “opt in” by passing Google’s digital threshold; there is at least some implicit (if not entirely explicit) understanding that doing so requires a fee: their information. What would that look like in the context of the “internet-up” neighborhood? There are no specific answers yet.
The lack of framework around who would own the data generated by the community is another red flag, according to Wylie. Apart from privacy concerns, it could mean that Torontonians themselves would wind up paying for data that could otherwise be public. “You could imagine a situation where resident aggregate data is being sold back to the government,” she said—potentially for purposes in the public interest, be it traffic management or trash collection. “Why aren’t we exploring ways for residents to collect data or participate in data collection in a way that is open and free? Take my data, take my stuff, but we won’t make it into a product or service. We’ll leverage it because it’s ours.”
Sidewalk says that the data collected would be used to streamline inefficiencies in transportation, housing, and energy use, and help the neighborhood scale unknown new heights of urbanism—say, by guiding the design of flexible dwelling spaces or super-safe street networks. And, at an earlier public roundtable in May, Sidewalk Labs opened up some avenues for questions on the topic. That event was accompanied by the release of a “responsible data use framework” which outlined some general principles: that all data will be collected transparently, stored openly whenever possible, and put to a “beneficial purpose.” The company also stated that it will never sell personal data to third parties or use it for advertising, and that it will seek to inform individuals whenever their personal data is being gathered.
But that still left open a number of blank spaces, such as how a “beneficial purpose” is defined, what meaningfully informing people would look like, and how data might be housed and protected. The CEO of Sidewalk Labs, Dan Doctoroff, has said that data won’t be used for commercial purposes. But the data framework only states that personal information won’t be sold. What about information in aggregate?
“You’re talking in the context of now, with Facebook answering questions,” said one unnamed audience member, who identified herself as a former English teacher, at the roundtable in May. The event fell not long after Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before U.S. Congress about Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data breach. The rhetoric of the presentation used too many “weasel words,” she said. “What I’d like to see is for Google, Alphabet to be less afraid of using appropriate, transparent language.”
The response was probably less than comforting. “We didn’t put down specific commitments, not because we don’t care about it, but because we care so much,” said Alyssa Harvey Dawson, the head of Sidewalk Labs’ legal team. “We know that there are complex questions that need to be answered.”
Criticism of the project intensified throughout the early summer, as a series of resignations rocked Waterfront Toronto—first the CEO, Will Fleissig (who rejoined this week as a consultant), and then Julie Di Lorenzo, a prominent Toronto real estate developer who had served for years as the chair of one of its main advisory boards. “What is [Sidewalk] bringing to the table and what are they potentially getting out of it?” she asked in her resignation letter. “How are Canadian values protected? I felt like we are shortchanging our own capacity.”
The partnership between the two entities was too close for Di Lorenzo’s comfort. And it has been unusually tight. Normally, Waterfront Toronto has spearheaded master plans for the Port Lands area, procuring developers and partners to fulfill the visions it has drawn, ostensibly in the public interest. But in fall 2017, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto formed a joint entity called Sidewalk Toronto, which is now responsible for leading the planning, funding, and development of the site. The organizational structure of Sidewalk Toronto—its relationship to either of its parents—is opaque. “Who’s driving the proposal and putting forth the vision?” Siemiatycki said. “Bringing the private sector into the initial phase of project is raising concerns about how this project plays out.”
Adding to public anxiety is the fact that the first planned draft agreement between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs—the initial document outlining the terms of the relationship, as they work towards a development plan—wasn’t made public until after nine months of public pressure. A second draft of that document was released at the end of July, which assigned more power to Waterfront Toronto and further restricted the conditions of its relationship to Sidewalk Labs than the original. But it, too, barely grazed the question of who owns what data and how it could be monetized. (Waterfront Toronto did not respond to CityLab’s requests for comment.)
Those are core questions for a project of this nature, according to Greg Rodriguez, an Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who specializes in the adoption of emerging technologies by local government. “What did Waterfront Toronto potentially give away?” he wondered. “That will be the looming question. Were they able to essentially give Sidewalk Labs the right to go and do something and commercialize something that was made from citizen data?”
Furthermore, while the new PDA clearly affirms Waterfront Toronto’s ownership of the land—a weak point in the original agreement—it also places virtually all of the liability for the project on Waterfront Toronto. What happens if, say, those modular tiles-of-the-future have to be replaced every six months? It’s not clear who’d be paying for them.
“We don’t know what it means to entrench this firm in the city’s operations,” Wylie said. And now, she has written, it’s as if Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are gaslighting critics of the most “innovative” part of the proposal—the ultra-connected, wifi-beaming digital layer—by refusing to talk more about it.
Perhaps with such a cutting-edge development, it really isn’t possible for Sidewalk Labs, or Waterfront Toronto, to know all the specifics. The idea, after all, is that this is a flexible city of the future; who knows what kind of data-harvesting technologies will be available once ground is broken and it’s time to actually embed the walls of Quayside with something. No one wants to be the Smart City locked in to the 21st-century equivalent of eight-track tape players or VCRs.
Rit Aggarwala, the company’s head of urban systems, explained that there’s no secret reason that Sidewalk Labs isn’t talking specifics about its data governance plans right now. The project’s “hardware”—the buildings, streets, and public spaces—deserve just as much engagement and attention as the software, he explained. “I push back on the idea that [the digital layer] is what’s really novel here,” said Aggarwala. “The idea that questions around data privacy and governance have to happen before public engagement can turn to urban design—I think that’s irresponsible.” Further information will be provided when the final draft plan is released, he said. Until then, the company has no firm plan to say anything more.
It’s true that, if realized, Quayside would serve as a combo platter of good urbanist ideals that come à la carte elsewhere in the world. But few of them are actually new, critics say—they all already exist, or have been articulated, in cities around the world. Tall timber construction is being pioneered by Canadian builders. Modular building design has been around since the 1960s. Pedestrian-first street networks are all over the place in Europe. Concrete that can melt and absorb is something material engineers have been working on for decades. Low-speed autonomous vehicles are on the roads in Las Vegas, Michigan, Helsinki, and beyond.
What distinguishes Sidewalk Labs as a developer seems clearly to be the same thing that attracted so much global interest to what is, in geographic scope, a relatively small Canadian real estate project: the imprimatur of the developer’s corporate sibling, and the notion that a Google City would be a marvel to behold.
“You can’t deny that the differentiating catalyst of the Quayside project is technology and [Sidewalk’s] belief that embedded data collection and analysis will provide solutions to societal needs,” Di Lorenzo told me. Twelve acres may not be a lot of space, but the vision being contemplated for it represents something far greater—a brave new world of urban thinking, forged by one of most powerful technology companies of our era.
Should any city trust a for-profit entity to make the best decisions for it, especially when the business models of its corporate parent are under such intense scrutiny?
Aggarwala insisted that his company shouldn’t be conflated with its backer. “If it was Google that was the innovation partner and the developer here, that might the case,” he said. “But we’re not Google.”
But nearly a year into the Toronto project, Sidewalk Labs hasn’t made clear what it is. The lack of specifics on how it intends to carry out its ambitious plans, who is guiding them, and how that aligns with the public’s interest persists. The longer that goes on, Siemiatycki said, the more anxiety will fill in the information gap. “I think the outsize interest is for good reason because of what’s possible, and how this can change the discourse on city building,” he said.
One could also look at this project quite differently. If technologists didn’t dream, society would rarely come up with new ideas. Outside of the military, government agencies often struggle to justify the use of public tax dollars for purposes that don’t directly respond to issues plaguing society in the present, even if they might open up new corridors for progress. So it’s appealing when tech companies come along saying that they have them.
But perhaps it’s useful to think about what can happen when a government does take the lead on innovation. Economists and historians often point to Landsat project as an example of this. The world’s first earth-observing satellite was launched by a team of NASA engineers in 1972. Today, 46 years later, eight Landsat satellites (soon to be nine) have produced millions of images. Because Landsat’s maps and data are managed by a government agency, they are free and open to be used for virtually any purpose. They’ve enabled the world to monitor crops, study snowpack and forest cover, respond to wildfires and floods, extract oil and gold, and measure urban growth. Regular people use these pictures, too, to revel in their place in the universe. And the images paved the way for 360-degree satellite mapping services, such as Google Earth.
Landsat’s data will remain, for the foreseeable future, in the public domain. Its governance has been shaped not by a profit objective, but for the dissemination of public knowledge. As such, it has helped both private and public interests.
Wylie points out that she’s not against smart cities per se—perhaps cities should be gathering data to smooth out traffic, maximize public space, conserve energy, and prevent crime. The important thing, she said, is that the values that inform how data gets gathered are established by the public and their democratically elected officials, rather than by a tech company in their all-in-one role as real-estate consultant, public planner, tech provider, and data keeper.
If there’s one lesson to learn from the bumpy first year of Sidewalk Lab's initial city-building project, it might be that the public entity involved in any kind of smart city project better articulate what it wants out of the deal beyond just an abstract desire for “innovation.” That word is buzzy, and government leaders often use it as a stand-in for “economic development.” But without a clear and public raison d’être, it’s not hard to see the benefits of this pursuit of innovation winding up in private hands.
In some ways, the anxiety around Quayside may be a problem of the project’s own making—and the expectation that a truly smart city would be guided by transparency, from public and private actors alike. “They’re the ones who said this ‘digital layer’ would be there,” Wylie said. “Now they’re not explaining what it is.”