Is Sidewalk Labs Building a Brotopia on Toronto's Waterfront?

The details of a Google affiliate's billion-dollar real-estate project are shrouded in secrecy.

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Apr 26 2018, 12:00pm

Toronto's waterfront. Image: John Vetterli/Flickr

A Google affiliate wants to build a 12-acre city of the future in Toronto that will do 24/7 data collection on everybody who lives and works there—and after six months of top-secret negotiations, the public still doesn’t know much about it.

It’s an approach that may feel familiar to a stealth-mode startup: Toiling away behind an iron curtain of non-communication, only to suddenly emerge from the darkness to reveal an incontrovertibly amazing and technically pristine product that will shame all those who ever questioned it.

Except that this is not a startup. It’s a billion-dollar real-estate deal between a quasi-public organization called Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, a sister to Google and an arm of the most powerful internet company in the world. Taxpayers are partly footing the bill, and if all goes according to plan, possibly thousands of people will call the neighbourhood of Quayside their home. (Sidewalk Labs says it doesn’t yet know how many people will live there.)

At the upcoming May 3 roundtable discussion, Sidewalk Toronto will once again find itself trying to calm the anxieties of stakeholders, citizens, and journalists frustrated by the lack of transparency about planning decisions that could reshape a chunk of Canada’s biggest city. Considering Quayside’s focus on tech-friendly denizens, and the fact Google has said it plans to move its Canadian HQ to Quayside, the information vacuum has made it easy to imagine what this development might become: a tech brotopia.

Image: Sidewalk Labs

Unjustified secrecy surrounding the Toronto project is raising important questions about whether tech companies are not only equipped to take on major infrastructure initiatives, but also all of the civic responsibilities that come with building cities, and especially smart cities. As Raoul Bunschoten, an influential smart city architect and urban planner based in Berlin, told me in a transatlantic phone interview, Quayside may be the first of its kind, but it won’t be the last infrastructure project built by big tech. “In democracy, you cannot look like an autocratic force,” he said.

If approved, the project—dubbed Sidewalk Toronto—will be partly funded by Canadian taxpayers’ money through a public-private partnership (PPP). Still, for reasons that haven’t yet been adequately explained, it’s been permitted to circumvent traditional public accountability measures reserved for PPPs. Even most Toronto city councillors have been excluded from knowing the details of the $50-million initial development phase, except for one who is also on the Waterfront Toronto board. Anyone who does know anything is under an apparent non-disclosure agreement.

When Sidewalk Labs was chosen to develop a piece of Toronto’s waterfront last fall, the plan was seen as visionary. Its winning proposal pitched transforming Quayside into a mini-smart city with automated trash collection, autonomous vehicles, and a high-tech approach to sustainability. It would serve as “a hub for innovation-related companies... and entrepreneurs" and give private and commercial residents the opportunity to “live, work, learn, and play.”

The company glossed over a few key details, though.

The project's first public roundtable. Video: Sidewalk Toronto/YouTube

Only 20–30 percent of units will be affordable housing (funded in part by government subsidies), and none of the units appear to have a closed bedroom (see p.125), making them inhospitable to many families. At the same time, Sidewalk Labs’ data-collection dreams can only be fully realized if Quayside occupants play along—meaning those uncomfortable with 24/7 sensor-driven surveillance might abstain.

So who is this project actually for? It's still not clear how people and companies will be selected to occupy Quayside, although Micah Lasher, head of policy and communications at Sidewalk Labs, said in an email to Motherboard that it wants Quayside to reflect Toronto’s economic and cultural diversity. “Exactly how we get there is something we’ll explore with Waterfront Toronto, housing experts and advocates, and the public,” wrote Lasher.

This lack of clarity is not only confusing, but bad for optics. “I think the reason why the debate is starting to get extraordinary is because it’s Alphabet, it’s Google,” Anthony Townsend, an expert on future cities and author of SMART CITIES: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for A New Utopia, explained to me on the phone.

Read More: Google Wants to Build the ‘City of the Future’ in Toronto, and Locals Are Worried

Although Sidewalk Labs is organizationally distinct from Google, it’s impossible to fully separate the two because of their shared lineage to Alphabet, a company people are already worried has too much data on us.

In an attempt to ease people’s minds, Sidewalk Labs said late last year it would not commercialize or sell the data gathered at Quayside. In an email to Motherboard on April 24, 2018, Sidewalk Labs reconfirmed it wouldn’t sell data—but it also said “we are big believers in open data” and that it hoped “different groups and innovators” would be able to access (non-personal) data to contribute their ideas. Exactly how it will accomplish this remains to be determined.

Still, as Townsend noted in our interview, the language is telling. “They said they’re not going to sell the data, but they’re going to share it with other Alphabet companies,” he said. “It’s essentially the same thing.”

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