Last fall, when Toronto Mayor John Tory embarked on a two-day business mission to New York City, it was no surprise that the field trip on technology and innovation included a visit to Sidewalk Labs, which is run by former Bloomberg CEO and deputy mayor of economic development and rebuilding for New York City, Dan Doctoroff.
Sidewalk Labs is the brainchild of Google, through its umbrella company Alphabet. “Sidewalk Labs is the realization of Google’s long-standing dream to ‘give us a city and put us in charge,’ as the former Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt once put it. As Alphabet’s smart-cities division, the company works to ‘accelerate urban innovation’ through technology deployments undertaken in collaboration with cities,” reported The Atlantic.
Waterfront Toronto announced last September that Sidewalk Labs had won the bid to be the “innovation and funding partner” for a sweeping tech-driven restoration of the city’s Quayside district.
New York City already had dabbled in a Sidewalk Labs initiative — it was actually the first Sidewalk Labs test site. In 2015, the city and Sidewalk Labs rolled out an effort called LinkNYC, which sought to put Wi-fi and digital advertising screens in thousands of pay phone booths across the city.
Even though the LinkNYC project got off to a slow start due to pushback over privacy and data security concerns, more than 1,300 links are active across all five boroughs, and 3.3 million people have used the free gigabit Wi-Fi service. The smart city technology has led to the use of over 3,625,000 GB of data.
Last October, Sidewalk Labs began another urban development project, which The Atlantic called “its most ambitious project yet: transforming the underdeveloped Toronto waterfront into an affordable, eco-friendly smart neighborhood — a little model town to showcase Sidewalk’s innovative technologies and urbanist ideas. For the privilege, Sidewalk has committed $50 million to a year-long, joint-planning process with Waterfront Toronto, an urban-development corporation.”
According to the article, the urban development proposal envisions a “vibrant collection of neighborhoods” across the Eastern Waterfront with arts, commerce, and urban innovation. It also includes Google’s Canadian headquarters and an “urban innovation institute” as anchor tenants.
But some people are cautious about using smart city technology that is so new while collecting myriad data from citizens without the government infrastructure in place to address privacy and data security.
The Project for Public Places, a nonprofit urbanist organization, offered notes of caution about the 800-acre urban development experiment: “At Quayside, Sidewalk Toronto should look beyond sensor-driven data, and observe the city at eye level alongside residents… Innovations are especially susceptible to the law of unintended consequences, and until machine learning obsolesces us all, a sensor will only record the kind of data it is engineered to capture.”
While GeekWire noted some of the possible upsides to the development, it raised concerns, as well: “Part of the plan includes ‘a distributed network of sensors to collect real-time data about the surrounding environment.’ Researchers estimate that kind of high-tech monitoring infrastructure can save cities billions in energy bills, but those savings could come at a cost to citizen privacy. There isn’t a strong regulatory framework in place to govern how data is collected in cities because the technology is so novel.”
As part of this urban development project, Alphabet’s intent is to try to find a solution to the data privacy issue. GeekWire reports, “Doctoroff hopes that the Toronto project can become a testbed, not just for smart city innovations but for government oversight, as well. He says that in order to engender trust and create a pilot for the city of the future, it is important ‘not to use the data for commercial purposes but instead only to use it for the quality of life.’”
If Alphabet can figure out how to “engender trust” while collecting boggling amounts of personal data in Toronto, it will have lasting implications on how smart we will allow our home, city, and government technology to become.