How Smart Should a City Be? Toronto Is Finding Out

Laura Bliss at CityLab: “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…

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.”

“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.

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-edsand 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.
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….(More)”.