Sidewalk Labs’ master plan: another hard lesson in urban utopianism

Digital visions of the future are often excessively optimistic about the inherent virtues of big data



Sidewalk Labs’ highly anticipated Master Innovation Development Plan for Toronto’s Quayside neighbourhood was released Monday (June 24).

The 1,500-page document entitled Toronto Tomorrow: A New Approach For Inclusive Growth offers many details on what the 80-hectare development will look like and is meant to launch several months more of public consultations and evaluation in advance of government decisions on the massive project’s acceptability.

Ongoing international media attention to controversies over surveillance, privacy and the Google-linked company’s most prominent “smart city” experiment testifies to the significance of the proposal. Waterfront Toronto has also outlined its concerns in an open letter signed by board chair Stephen Diamond released Monday.

Premised on ubiquitous sensor networks collecting fine-grained and often personal information for urban automation, Sidewalk Labs’ initiative raises a number of long-term questions for the governance of civic life. 

1. Will the project produce significant benefits for Torontonians?

Sidewalk Labs’ central promise is that intensive data collection and analysis will foster innovative services that will significantly improve urban living and generate new wealth. 

But whether these benefits will actually materialize – and for whom – is far from a given.

The history of urban utopianism is littered with failed experiments and digital visions of the future are often excessively optimistic about the inherent virtues of big data and “smart” algorithms.

For Sidewalk Labs’ claims of public benefit to be reliable, the plan needs to consider costs, risks and alternatives.

2. Will the Sidewalk Labs plan comply with all relevant Canadian public policies?

As Ontario’s Auditor General has pointed out, an adequate policy framework for addressing the scope of Sidewalk Labs’ digital ambitions does not yet exist.

And it will take many months for the digital dimensions of the master plan to be properly assessed. At this point, it’s not clear whether Sidewalk Labs acknowledges this reality.

3. Will privacy rights be respected?

Sidewalk Labs has committed to adopting “the most privacy-protected/citizen-centered set of policies and governance structures in the world, recognizing privacy as a fundamental human right.” And it has notably proposed an urban data trust model for regulating open access to the de-identified data captured by its sensors.

However, this still leaves a long way for the master plan to go in achieving its data protection goals.

The master plan should be transparent on how Sidewalk Labs will handle all the data it has access to, in particular the far greater volumes of personal information that its corporate sister, Google, already collects with dubious consent from smartphone users.

4. Does Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside proposal genuinely reflect what Torontonians want?

Sidewalk Labs proudly claims that its master plan “is the result of consultation with more than 20,000 Torontonians.”

But it has yet to make a persuasive case that its “public engagement” activities have shaped its final plan. In fact, it has failed to dispel concerns that Sidewalk Labs steered the process in its interest, cherry-picked favourable opinions and used the feedback for fine-tuning its messaging to avoid criticism while making exaggerated claims of public support.

5. Is Sidewalk Labs an appropriate development partner?

Perhaps the most serious challenge to Sidewalk Labs’ project derives from its close association with Google and its surveillance business model, which have attracted major legal investigations and led to billion-dollar fines.

Sidewalk Labs has understandably distanced itself from its corporate big sister, declaring that it will not seek profits by monetizing data it collects.

This claim invites skepticism as it comes from a company with scant urban development experience and whose vision for Quayside is founded on “building a neighbourhood from the internet up.”

Sidewalk Labs’ master plan faces formidable difficulties in meeting the test of serving the public interest.

Given this, the plan’s principal value may be as a timely resource for informed public debate on what Torontonians want in terms of “smart city” experimentation. The time and talent devoted to examining the plan from that perspective will be well spent.

Andrew Clement is an emeritus professor in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto and a member of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. The views expressed here are his own.

@nowtoronto

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