Sidewalk Toronto: Violating Democracy, Entrenching the Status Quo, Making Markets of the Commons

Bianca Wylie
Apr 20 · 8 min read

Sidewalk Labs is pushing ahead in shaping urban realms without consent. What they’re doing is experimentation without boundaries.

While a good chunk of Sidewalk Labs’ business model, at least what it wants to do to Toronto, may be problematic for public coffers, it may not be that new or special (real estate boondoggle, infrastructure finance). But the slice of work that it’s doing with data continues apace in the most evasive and slimy way possible.

Sidewalk Labs is not Google, nor is it following that business model of advertising for its initial plans in Toronto. But it has borrowed a few tactics from its corporate sibling. And while global debates rage around policies and laws related to data, and those that operate in those worlds hold forth on the issues with somewhat detached professional bemusement, the company steamrolls ahead. It’s steamrolling ahead using the method that may be the most powerful method it knows — shaping social norms.

Sidewalk Labs and its data approach is focused on entrenching the status quo of data collection. De-identified, anonymized, subject to responsible use assessments, blah blah blah — whatever word salad set applies, no problem — however it has to go down to be allowable. But it will go down, that’s never been on the table for a no. In today’s Sidewalk Labs’ newsletter, they announced their work on signage for data collection in public space. Digital Transparency in the Public Realm, as they call it. As they said last month: “sensors have become a part of our daily lives.”

Passive language, without agency. As though the sensors and cameras just sprouted into the world, without creators or purchasers, without contracts or decisions. This subtle normalization is the work to guarantee that a quantified city becomes a social norm. And of course it will come with a side of green-washing in the rhetoric, to make sure that you might hesitate or feel a sense of social pressure to get with the program — you’re not anti-sustainability, are you? The quantified ‘resilient’ city is key to opening up new markets.

Illustration: Hudson Christie http://www.hudsonchristie.com/

While the hexagonal design touches got their final beauty marks, Sidewalk Labs has delayed, again, submitting its work to Waterfront Toronto, as reported by Amanda Roth at The Logic. This is an ongoing sign of disrespect for the opportunity it’s been given — disrespect for the three levels of Canadian government and the public. A disrespect that they paper over with spin about wanting to be thoughtful and thorough to get things right.

If there is one thing Sidewalk Labs has no interest in, it’s public input regarding what they’re doing. If they did, they would have brought the major components of this deal — such as real estate, scope and finance — clearly forward from day one. Do people think Dan Doctoroff didn’t have plans and financing ideas for the Ports Lands from the first day he stepped into Toronto? Ok.

And while the company can’t seem to close on their Master Innovation and Development Plan, they’re pushing full-steam ahead on their work to make sure cities, Toronto and elsewhere, are compliant with their quantified worldview. Sidewalk Labs has done several things in the pursuit of this goal. And it’s done in the Google way. Cheerful, young, faux-progressive, hip, making this all seem fun and harmless. And attracting a range of stakeholders to make complicit in its work and ideology.

Here are a few of the moves the company has made. They invented the term urban data (this does not exist) to try and shape a new class of data, and with it a new class of permissions and norms, ones that undoubtedly enable commercialization. Start to watch for that term in their communications. They’re saying it over and over and over, hoping that through brute force it will get picked up, which they’ve already had some minor success with.

I’ve seen a few organizations and governments start to talk about “city data”. It’s probably best not to glom onto this idea. What we need to be doing is talking about data in specific and granular terms, not new vague ones. In addition to this, this term removes the humans generating the data. Just because it’s aggregate or anonymous does not remove the human as a source nor does it put human activity, when deemed non-personal, up for commodification.

Earlier on in the process, Sidewalk Labs tossed all responsibility for data issues over the fence into a format it’s calling a civic data trust. How will that work? No one knows! But it’s a can now kicked safely ahead and into the future so no more questions there please. And in the pursuit of this quasi special economic zone/test-bed, this answer seems to be the most expedient way to shrug off problems related to using people’s aggregate data as inputs to products.

And in today’s power grab, the company thinks it should just go on ahead and start creating digital way-finding for public space, leaning into the idea of transparency to enable mass data collection. And of course they do it with lots of others. And of course it’s voluntary. Here’s an analogy about this move: when the public sector wants to do a plan for directions with signage, say in a city or in an airport or something, they hire planning companies to do that work. Private companies paid with public dollars. And this makes a lot of sense, because it’s a design exercise where everyone has already agreed on what North, South, East, and West are.

In this case, Sidewalk Labs is trying to create the map when no one has agreed on the directions. No one has agreed that all this stuff should even be in public. There is no social license to bypass these discussions that need to be had. It’s brazen. And worst of all, they can’t stop saying how helpful they are being. This work isn’t some kind of glorified way-finding. The foundation of what is being discussed here is in legal and social flux. This is entrenchment of the status quo dressed up as progressive fun.

Taken together, these approaches entrench and accelerate the current levels of surveillance in urban centres. This is all happening at precisely the moment society is having deep and extensive conversations about data as toxic and as a liability, not only as a public good or an asset. There are conversations about trade-offs that need to be had, conversations which may greatly reduce the amount of data collection that a city and its people agree to. Maybe not, but certainly not a step to skip.

Sidewalk’s work is an effort to undermine all of these discussions. It’s working to assert a social norm for public space that a corporation has no right to be doing. And as the urbanists they’ve co-opted think they are triumphantly shouting down the critics on issues of personal privacy, they’re missing the play entirely.

This isn’t about personal data and that narrow interpretation of privacy. It never was. And while de-identification is not the magic that people are being sold, and there are *very* legitimate concerns about personal data and privacy in the mix here, let’s set them aside. (And, I mean, Replica, let’s never forget that piece of work). Let’s also set aside the very real possibility that subsidiaries might be ingested by Google or that data can be cross-referenced. And and and. As you can see, privacy issues are not non-issues. And that word is confusing people. Despite all this mess, these issues still aren’t the major play to be aware of because these ones also have some decent attention on them.

Here’s the real data play to worry about: this project is a push to privatize every possible type of interaction or event in public space through data collection. To broker and mediate physical spaces through a digital layer. It may be a digital layer of open standards. It may be an interoperable layer. But as long as it’s there, it’s game on. And as Sidewalk Labs like to exclaim, hey — you can do this all too! They’re the enabler. They’ll enable local businesses. And they’ll do all of this while acting as though the company is not part of a holding company that has an ever-expanding set of subsidiaries that have products for cities. Or a massive asymmetry of power and expertise. It’s the nonsense of open as equity.

In response to these critiques, Sidewalk Labs will, of course, flap around and say they’re helping with transparency, as cities are already doing things that people don’t know about. Guess whose problem that is? Not Sidewalk Labs’.

That’s local governments’ problem, and an issue they need to wrangle with residents. And they need time and space to do so. And yes, they’re late. And yes, that has opened up this vulnerability. And yes, they have bad tendencies themselves when it comes to data sometimes. Despite all of this, Sidewalk Labs does not need to be parachuting in with its solution when people and their governments haven’t had the chance to get themselves sorted out first.

And while locals in Toronto *still* can’t stop chanting about how helpful this ridiculous project is, look at Sidewalk Labs roll on ahead, doing exactly what it wants in the absence of any government intervention and outside of their final deliverable. The governments are paralyzed by fear and uncertainty, and Sidewalk Labs is doing this extracurricular stuff but holding them hostage on their deliverable. So messy.

Endgame

The question is not whether or not there can be some civic value or resident gain from intensive data collection and uses. Of course there can be. Of course there is. But at what cost? Is a double-digit efficiency increase for energy or waste now the handmaiden for more privatization and a full-blown surveillance state? There are other ways to do well for the earth, and the trade-off equations look different. Some of those ways are through environmental laws and policies.

The market marking that’s being threatened through the datafication of physical space needs to be challenged. But if discussions of personal privacy continue to prevail because the word is not understood well, then the frame of the conversation will continue to be wrong, and this works to Sidewalk’s benefit. The word privacy is being used when it’s far too small a word to encompass all the things it represents: collective privacy, consent, power, agency, control, freedom, and more.

The green-washing that will be used to defend this datafication is just around the corner in this upcoming Master Innovation and Development Plan. And once we get there, you can bet there will be reams of people that will defend and deny the problems with this quantified future worldview: small businesses, city governments, transportation planners, and more.

But within each of those categories there are also people willing to rethink things in a big way, given the liabilities they create and the urgent nature of the issues we are facing together. As with everything related to this project, if people consent to these policy directions, that’s a different story. But the current framing of this project isn’t allowing for it. And that’s not by accident, it’s by design.