21 May 2019

Sidewalk Labs – Interested, with a side of skeptical…


Earlier this month, we delved into the planning and process behind Waterfront Toronto’s Port Lands transformation. Now, we’re taking deep dive on another Waterfront Toronto project: Quayside—and its’ contentious development partner, Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., parent company to Google.

We’ve been hearing about Sidewalk Labs more than a Kardashian sister lately (remember them?) and information has been revealed in a slow, continuous leak.

Waterfront Toronto selected Sidewalk Labs as their development partner following a request for proposals (RFP) issued in early 2017. In two short years, Sidewalk Labs has been busy providing lots of ideas on how they want to transform Quayside, but have struggled to flesh out the “hows”: how they will achieve their goals and how they will meaningfully involve the community.

Sidewalk’s ideas have envisioned Quayside as a testbed, from heady proposals to re-do Toronto’s zoning by-law to testing modular high-rises, tall timber buildings, piloting a micro-grid for electricity, parking structures that could be converted into dwelling units, and robot delivery.

Sidewalk Labs has been embroiled in conflict, first over privacy concerns, and later over basically everything else. Sidewalk Labs’ vision for the ‘smart city’-inspired site featured a host of digital data collection methods that would monitor how people use public space.

The controversy comes down to a series of questions: should a private company collect data in public space? Should they be allowed to monetize it? And if tech companies in Silicon Valley suck at protecting our data, should we trust Google if they say this time it will be different?


Quayside map – Sidewalk Labs

Growing dissent

From the beginning, there were warning signs: Sidewalk Labs’ vision to conduct a “thought experiment sounded like it was using Toronto as a “living laboratory.

Experiments today require that participants provide informed, continuous, and ongoing consent, but much of Sidewalk Labs’ data collection methods leave no room to opt in—or out and also raises the question of who would own data about you.

The Ghost of Data Breaches Past

In 2013, news broke that tech companies were constantly sharing user data with the US government through the PRISM program, even when the users weren’t suspected of committing any crimes. In 2018, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had access to way too much data and used it for what seemed to be rather nefarious purposes rightfully made a lot of people nervous. And just a couple weeks ago, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner announced that it planned to take Facebook to court because of poor data protection that allowed an outside organization—Cambridge Analytica—to gain too much information from the website’s users. This raises the question of whether we should trust tech companies with our data; the answer is ‘probably not.’


Credit: Picture Plane for Heatherwick Studio

Turn Down for What? And a Smart City for whom?

“With heightened ability to measure the neighbourhood comes better ways to manage it,” reads the 2017 vision for the project. “Sidewalk expects Quayside to become the most measurable community in the world.” This ‘heightened ability’ makes some people—such as Bianca Wylie, —nervous.

Wylie has emerged as one of the predominant voices advocating for critical thought and analysis. She has acknowledged the issues related to privacy are concerning, but they’re not the only ones: she identified the RFP process as flawed and the ongoing public engagement as as “charade”. Great!

Big news! And the Key to the LRT

Early 2019 brought us both a flurry of snow and stories on the Quayside project. First, in February, news broke that Sidewalk Labs was planning to expand their smart city project from Quayside to the rest of the Port Lands. Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel Doctoroff clapped back to say that the plans weren’t secret—they just weren’t fleshed out enough to present to the public

In March, Sidewalk Labs announced that they wanted to tie the Lakeshore East LRT to Quayside—i.e., that if the LRT isn’t built, Quayside won’t be, either (Deschamps, 2019).  Sidewalk wants to fund a chunk of the transit line for a cut of property taxes and developer fees.

Doctoroff also hinted at this in his February editorial, writing that waterfront rapid transit could be funded through “a share of new revenue that would be unlocked and materialize later, including a surge of property tax payments and developer charges” (Doctoroff, 2019). The Lakeshore East LRT also joins the Scarborough East LRT in being conspicuously absent from the province of Ontario’s budget. Last week, we dug in to Doug’s transit doodles, where we observed that it was missing a few transit lines. It’s still unclear if the omissions means these LRTs were dropped or if someone just forgot to add them in.

In retrospect, the information that was leaked wasn’t shocking in itself; it’s not surprising that Sidewalk Labs has been looking at the bigger picture of the Eastern Waterfront or that they are concerned with transit.

Calls to End the Project

The news leaks earlier this year reignited the criticism of the project, but this time, things got even more serious: with calls to halt the project entirely (Deschamps, 2019). The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and an organization called Block Sidewalk both all called for a “reset” of the project (Deschamps, 2019). Last week, the CCLA filed a lawsuit calling for a “shutdown and reset” (The Canadian Press, 2019).

The outcome of the lawsuit remains to be seen, but the debate will continue over data privacy and how far private companies should be permitted to design and monitor public space.

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