Sidewalk Labs: Smart City or Google Takeover?

By, Lilian Jin

The smart city project that initially gained enthusiasm has now been receiving backlash from Torontonians. What is Sidewalk Labs and why has the tone shifted?

In 2015, Alphabet Inc. launched a company whose vision was to transform cities and improve quality of life through technology and data. This company was Sidewalk Labs. It would tackle the challenges a growing city like Toronto would face such as cost of living, efficient transportation, and energy usage.

Now introducing Waterfront Toronto who manages and co-owns with the city 12 acres of undeveloped waterfront land, Quayside. Waterfront Toronto asked for proposals in 2017 for an innovation and funding partner to develop Quayside and experiment with innovative ideas to address urban challenges. And so, Waterfront Toronto chose to partner up with Sidewalk Labs.

Fast forward to this past June, Sidewalk released its 1524-page Master Innovation and Development Plan, titled Toronto Tomorrow: A New Approach for Inclusive Growth. It promised to spend up to $1.3 billion on the project, including $900 million in equity investment with local partners, $80 million in a mass timber factory to construct buildings, and $400 million in optional financing towards a new waterfront LRT line. Projections by 2040 stated the creation of 44,000 direct jobs, $4.3 billion annual tax revenue, and $14.2 billion annual GDP impact. That’s seven times the baseline numbers from existing waterfront proposals. 

The plan stated the community would cut greenhouse gases by 89% and be climate-positive, which means removing additional carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Housing would be more affordable, with 40% of units at below-market rates. Additionally, three quarters of all trips would be made by transit, walking or cycling, which would save households $4000 in annual transportation costs.

So what’s the catch? The project is conditional on the new LRT line’s approval, which Waterfront Toronto does not have authority to guarantee. Sidewalk also wanted more land than Waterfront Toronto offered. To realize the full potential of this smart city, Sidewalk wanted to develop an additional 18-acre area, Villiers West, which Waterfront Toronto does not own. It planned to have Quayside and Villiers West be part of a bigger IDEA District covering 190 acres.

Source: Sidewalk Labs

Here’s where privacy concerns stem. The smart city’s operation would rely heavily on the collection of community data. Sensors and cameras at key distribution points would track real time data on things like energy usage, traffic patterns, public space utilization, and trash disposal. An Urban Innovation Institute would then invite startups and technology companies to use this data to build products and services. This Institute along with a new Google Canada headquarters would be housed in Villiers West.

As quoted by federal New Democrat Party MP, Charlie Angus, a critic of the project:

“At what point did we decide to turn over some of the most valuable real estate in all of North America to the creation of a company town? This is what this will be. Welcome to Googleville.”

What started as an opportunity for Toronto has since led to a #BlockSidewalk hashtag campaign, a lawsuit, and high-profile resignations from Waterfront Toronto. Sidewalk Labs will need to answer every concern, and if disagreements with Waterfront Toronto persist, the project could be dropped this October. The project scrapping could be seen as both a privacy win and a blow to Toronto’s tech reputation. 

What do you think, does Sidewalk Labs have Toronto’s best interests in mind? 

Featured image by Picture Plane for Heatherwick Studio for Sidewalk Labs

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