Skift Take

By pushing back against Sidewalk Labs, the city of Toronto has shown that the future of the smart city will be forged by compromise and collaboration with local authorities.

As urban living innovations become more attractive to travelers, and some of the world’s biggest companies work to develop new concepts to build technology-first neighborhoods, cities around the world are embracing new models of living and working.

Backlash to the influence of technology companies on city life, however, has presented problems for companies like Amazon and Alphabet as they attempt to break into major cities in North America.

As Skift reported earlier this year, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs division had proposed a far-reaching and invasive plan to redevelop Toronto’s Waterfront district. The lengthy proposal was met with resistance from locals and lawmakers, many of whom saw the potential for violation of privacy law and an example of corporate largesse overcoming municipal needs.

Toronto officials have finally responded to the proposal, pushing back on many of the most egregious elements of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal. A new letter from Waterfront Toronto details the elements of Sidewalk Labs’ vision that will no longer be a part of the neighborhood, if the company is eventually allowed to begin work in the district.

The size of the Quayside development will be shrunk from 190 acres to just 12 acres. Another company will also become lead developer of the area, leaving Sidewalk Labs to play a secondary role that will certainly compromise its far-reaching vision.

To wit, Sidewalk Labs had proposed that all the data it collects from residents and visitors would reside in an Urban Data Trust. Urban data, according to the company’s lengthy proposal, could include almost anything related to the actions of people in the Waterfront area. This data would be a public asset, yet accessible to those who wanted to build apps and services, namely Sidewalk Labs.

While Alphabet claimed it would not monetize this data, it planned to develop services that could only be used by those who opt-in to the surveillance system installed in the development. It was easy to follow the logical conclusion of this proposal: a two-tier system of citizenship, with benefits for those who agree to sacrifice their data privacy.

Waterfront Toronto, however, has eliminated this proposal from any potential deal with Sidewalk Labs.

“Sidewalk Labs agreed that all personal information will be stored in Canada, and it has eliminated the Urban Data Trust proposal, as well as the term “urban data,'” reads the letter. “It will comply with all existing and future legislative and regulatory frameworks.”

This is likely great news for travelers. Business travelers won’t have to worry about data regarding a trip sitting in a database somewhere to be exploited by Alphabet, or being targeted by invasive new apps or services, and vacationers won’t have to be concerned about marketers hounding them based on their behavior in the development.

Other restrictions pare down commitments that Sidewalk Labs wanted to extract from the city of Toronto in exchange for its partnership.

The city will now receive a share of revenue from the project, and not part of profit from the development, to reinvest in city operations. It will also put any decision regarding the Sidewalk Toronto development in the hands of public administrators, ensuring the project will “remain subject to the regulation, evaluation, and approval of existing governing bodies.”

The city also refused to commit to adding a light-rail connection to the neighborhood, leaving it up to transit authorities to decide the matter.

The next deadline for a decision on the project is March 31, 2020, following another period of engagement with Toronto residents.

Read the full letter from Waterfront Toronto below.

Download (PDF, 46KB)


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Tags: alphabet, google, meetingsiq, privacy, smart cities, toronto

Photo credit: A render depicting Sidewalk Labs' Quayside plan. / Sidewalk Labs

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