Google Gets Into the Business of Building Smart Cities from Scratch

Last October, Waterfront Toronto announced a new partnership with Alphabet subsidiaries Google and Sidewalk Labs that would see the redevelopment of 12 acres of southeastern waterfront within the city. Sidewalk Labs has already invested $50 million in the project and Google will move its Toronto headquarters to the neighborhood. If the pilot proves successful, it plans to expand the redevelopment to include the complete 800-acre waterfront area.

One of the key aspects of the new development is that Sidewalk Labs intends to collect data from everything that happens within the eastern waterfront from air quality information to the routes its future populace takes and use that data to run energy, transport and all other systems. Sensors inside and outside buildings and on streets will constantly be monitoring the population and modulating it to better suit the apparent needs of its residents. The leader of Sidewalk Labs, former NYC deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff, told the press that Google’s plan was to improve the quality of life in cities generally, starting with the Toronto waterfront project as a pilot. In its project proposal, the company writes, “Sidewalk expects that many residents, in general, will be attracted by the idea of living in a place that will continuously improve”.

However, recently it has become clear that the city itself didn’t appear to know a deal with Google was taking place. It’s now become apparent that a non-profit development corporation, Waterfront Toronto, acted without input from actual city staff, in making the “framework” deal with Google to initiate what it is calling “Sidewalk Toronto”. Waterfront Toronto, a non-profit with a private board, had been granted authority to strategize about revitalization from the city in the eastern waterfront, but Toronto itself still retained authority over approval of any agreements connected to government-owned land.

On January 16th, Toronto’s city council received a report from Waterfront Toronto (which is publicly available) making it clear that the city hadn’t known what the non-profit was doing. Waterfront Toronto describes the partnership with Sidewalk Labs emerging out of its Request for Proposals (RFP), and Sidewalk Labs winning the bid to be its “Innovation and Funding Partner” for the Quayside district along Toronto’s waterfront. In response, the city council has requested that Waterfront Toronto include its chief information officer and chief transformation officer in all next stages of the planning process. They also expressed a desire to ensure that the Sidewalk Toronto initiative “aligns with the City’s digital infrastructure and data policy”.

Harvard law professor and author, Susan Crawford, writing in Wired earlier this month, discusses the challenges the city will face in trying to get access to what Google learns from its citizens as part of the smart city it is envisaging. Crawford points out that in fact the city may not even want that information because of the risks of the data being made public if a public records request is made. She states “it is not clear whether Toronto will gain any useful insights from its partnership with Google”, adding “meanwhile, Google will be gaining insights about urban life… that it will then be able to resell to cities around the world”.

Crawford also asks important questions about whether a city accepted IoT installations by giant tech companies for “free” is “being a good steward of the city’s reputation and long-term trustworthiness”. These kinds of questions will be crucial for the city of Toronto to continue to ask as they take on an active role in the planning of Quayside. Rather than being driven by Google’s priorities, Toronto will need to be clear about its values and priorities, and in doing so, likely constrain what tech companies can do now and in the future with the information they learn from their citizens.

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