Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, 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.
All eyes are on Sidewalk Labs' futuristic plans for a data-driven neighborhood in Toronto. But no one's watching more closely than Bianca Wylie.
In October 2017, Dan Doctoroff, the CEO of Sidewalk Labs, and Will Fleissig, then the CEO of Waterfront Toronto, took to the Toronto Star to talk about a big plan for the Canadian metropolis. Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet, would build a digitally wired neighborhood of the future on the edge of Lake Ontario. At “Quayside,” data-gathering sensors knitted together with cutting-edge urban design could make congestion, unaffordable housing, and excess emissions things of the past.
The short op-ed stated repeatedly how important the public’s input would be over the coming year of initial project planning, bolstered by a $50 million investment from Sidewalk. “Sidewalk Toronto is about improving people’s lives, not developing technology for technology’s sake,” the CEOs wrote. It was a sweet-sounding introduction. But it set off alarm bells for Bianca Wylie. Its authors seemed to lean on a confusing presumption.
“Neither of these people are the government,” she remembers thinking. “So why are they using all the words that a government would use to plan for the city?”
One year later, Wylie is among the most prominent voices of opposition to Sidewalk Labs’ vision for Toronto. And because this project is poised to be North America’s most ambitious test of how data-gathering technology might be fused into urban developments, she has also gained a following as a critic of “smart cities” writ large. The 39-year-old Torontonian and mother of two has authored dozens of newspaper articles and blog posts, spoken with the Toronto city council and the Canada House of Commons, and piped up at nearly every open event Sidewalk Labs has hosted over the past year. She is often described as a privacy advocate, since she talks a lot about how companies and governments use citizen data. But “civic tech reformer” might be a more appropriate label, for the drum she is beating is bigger than privacy. It’s about the risks of governments ceding power to private companies.
It’s also bigger than Toronto. What happens in this city is a test case that any tech company curious about building a neighborhood will be watching. And observers are seeing that Wylie’s camp is having an impact.
“It’s about our neighborhoods, our cities, how we want them to work, what problems should be solved, and which options should be looked at,” Wylie told me. “I reject the technocratic vision of problem solving,” she said.
As the Quayside project has unfolded over the past year, Wylie’s concerns have been affirmed by flurries of controversy. This month, following a rare audit of the organization’s use of public funds that criticized the handling of the Sidewalk Labs development, three board members at Waterfront Toronto were fired by provincial leaders.* Earlier this fall, another three individuals withdrew as project advisors, including Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of Tech Girls Canada, who cited “apathy and a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust” in her resignation letter, and Ann Cavoukian, a former privacy commissioner of Ontario who worried that, under Sidewalk Labs’ proposed guidelines for data use, other companies could access identifiable information gathered at the site.
And Sidewalk Labs has released incrementally detailed versions of a design plan that, thus far, are still most notable for the streamlined collection of vast amounts of data than for groundbreaking urban design concepts.
For Wylie, the redevelopment of Quayside—as the project site has been dubbed—seems to be wrong in its very conception. Waterfront Toronto is responsible for 800 acres of prime urban real estate on the lake, and by Wylie’s account, has allowed a private company instead to take the lead on shaping its future. Sidewalk Labs will determine questions of policy that, she told me, should be the province of governments and people, not of a startup.
“A city is not a business,” she said. Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto also took the unusual step of forming a joint entity called Sidewalk Toronto; it is this organization that has largely led public consultation on the development, rather than Waterfront Toronto or government itself. Wylie believes the result is a planning process that has had more to do with generating PR than garnering opinion, and argues that there has been little opportunity for citizens to learn about alternatives. It didn’t help that the terms of the agreement signed by Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto were not made public until after months of agitation by her and others. “I was skeptical a year ago that we could pull off a really democratically informed process,” Wylie said. “I have found the process to be thoroughly anti-democratic.”
And for much of the past year, it has been unclear what Sidewalk Labs wants to do with the information it will gather, Wylie claims. Until recently, project documents have been short on details about what types of data will be collected, who will own it, and whether it might be somehow monetized. In media interviews, Doctoroff has been reported as saying that the intention is not to make money, but Wylie said that explicit written commitments have been vague.
Wylie’s professional background gives her a powerful vantage point. She got her start in another era of techno-optimism, the dot-com boom. Though she later finished a degree in political science, she dropped out of her first undergraduate program while in her 20s to start a business that developed educational software. Wylie quickly learned there that private interests do not always align with social objectives; the product was a flop. Then Wylie got a job working for an early webcasting platform. Towards the end of her time there, she became interested in the politics of urban planning, and how unversed most civilians are in the language of zoning requirements, eminent domain, environmental reviews. She started to make short videos of public planning forums she attended, with the idea of producing am educational series. That didn’t pan out, but this is where Wylie met her next boss, a respected public consultation expert named Nicole Swerhun. Hired on at Swerhun’s firm, Wylie worked for five years on public planning processes in cities around North America. At some point, she attended her first meeting on open data in government.
“I remember listening to everyone saying that this is going to resolve problems with democracy, that there was going to be transparency and accountability now,” she said. But she quickly realized that the intersection of technology and urban planning would be “horrific” for public discourse. “They’re both full of jargon and elitism and privilege,” she said. What’s a data trust? What is a platform? Why are certain types of data more valued than others?
Regular citizens and, frequently, elected officials lack clear language to talk about what it means to integrate technology into normal democratic governance, Wylie believes. Self-driving vehicles, pavement tiles that can sense traffic and absorb rainwater, micro-dwellings, and common spaces monitored by “smart” energy systems—the sort of elements that Sidewalk Labs has mapped out for the land—sound great, but the problem as Wylie sees it is that they’ve been framed as the only option for developing public land. Sensors and software may well belong in the public realm, but Wylie thinks citizens should direct how to use them, not the private sector. “I really think there’s opportunity for governments to use technology well,” she said. “It’s a question of how do you get the confidence built up in government—how to make them realize, ‘you’re in charge! You’re the ones driving!’ ”
Wylie’s criticism of the Quayside project has focused primarily on Sidewalk Labs, but she has not spared the government proxies in Waterfront Toronto who invited the company to begin with, nor the public officials who could intervene. And she has done as good a job as anyone of articulating what is at stake if cities allow themselves to become the tools of companies, according to Kevin Webb, who has worked both for the World Bank and Sidewalk Labs, and is a leading commentator on data and open government. The promise of integrating technology into the public realm has huge potential, he said, but if it’s going to happen democratically, for the benefit of city dwellers, conversations need to happen in words everyone can use.
“Cities have always involved the public and the private and we’ve been able to manage that in physical space: that’s what planning is about,” he said. “But we don’t have an equivalent for digital, and it turns out it matters just as much.” Anthony Townsend, the urban futurist and technology consultant, who has also worked with Sidewalk Labs, told me he thinks of Wylie as “the Jane Jacobs of the smart city.”
Recently, there was light shed on the question of Sidewalk Labs’ data governance plans. In October, Sidewalk Labs released a proposal for how data would be governed, which outlined the idea of a civic data trust, or a neutral third party that would “approve and control the collection of, and manage access to, urban data originating in Quayside.” It is lengthy and detailed, and states emphatically that the data gathered in public spaces on the site would be stored and available for public use—not for the sole ownership or purposes of any one company. It also states that Sidewalk Labs would strip personally identifiable information from any data it plucked from this repository, and that it would not turn it into any kind of product.
But Sidewalk Labs wouldn’t necessarily be the only company with access to that data, and what other companies that set up shop within Quayside might do with residents’ information is another story. Micah Lasher, Sidewalk Labs’ head of communications, explained that it is outside their authority to establish guidelines for other players—probably, that’s for the government to decide. “We are not going to be the central collector of data that I think some people fear,” he said. “But that puts us at some distance from what rules would exist in this place.”
The detailed proposal on data governance, plus a clear acknowledgement of the government’s role in regulating it, seems to be a major turning point in the narrative surrounding the Quayside project, and perhaps a victory for Wylie’s advocacy. But she argues that the timing speaks to a deeper problem. “Why does it take a year for them to talk to the public about this stuff?” she said. “They’re trying to figure out, ‘what will you let us do?’ ”
Another way of interpreting the saga, though, could be that Sidewalk Labs is trying to figure out what to do, period. It is possible that company leaders are earnestly convinced that an Alphabet-owned startup can successfully come into a foreign city and build a happier neighborhood—a genuine belief that when technology, design, and lots of capital come together, top-down planning can achieve the public policy goals everybody seems to want. It’s also possible that Quayside’s team of self-proclaimed urbanists, many of them alumni of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, simply weren’t focused on the seemingly arcane topic of data governance at the start. “We’re not a technology company. We view ourselves as a place-making company,” Doctoroff recently told a convening of city officials, civic tech workers, and foundation leaders at CityLab Detroit. Maybe there was no nefarious data plot. In all the time that passed without detail, maybe they just didn’t have a coherent plan. “We’re dealing with an enormous amount of really complicated questions that have taken time to sort out,” said Lasher. “There is no question that in the vacuum that that has created, there have been a range of voices that include very legitimate concerns.”
Undoubtedly, the Quayside project is mired in complicated questions. A reason for that could be that they’re not questions designed for a company to solve. That’s the thrust of Wylie’s crusade: that cities are places people live, not in themselves grounds for product-making. “The question is, how do we think about how we want cities to work?” she said. “That’s what should be driving opportunities for business. Not the other way around.”
A version of this story also appears in London ideas, a journal on urban innovation by Centre for London.
*CORRECTION: This article has been amended to clarify the nature of Waterfront Toronto firings.