Sidewalk Toronto Tech & the Master Plan

It’s as Bad As We Thought

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Sidewalk Labs — IDEA District, Quayside/Port Lands Eastern Waterfront Toronto

In June 2019, Sidewalk Labs released its opus 1500 page master innovation and development plan for the Port Lands area of the Toronto waterfront, or what Sidewalk calls the IDEA space. It was a beautiful set of PDFs that laid out a vision for the kind of housing, building, public spaces, transit, grid, sanitation, sustainability, and digital infrastructure that might arise in that part of the city, captained ambiguously by Sidewalk Labs with the Waterfront Toronto development authority and the city. The basic deal envisions that Sidewalk Labs gets some choice property, rights to control technology and data, and rights to “sandbox” urban innovation platforms the company — and relatives in the Alphabet/Google family — can then leverage around the world. In return, Sidewalk Labs provides consulting services, procures sub-contractors, and helps to finance light rail (to be paid back from tax revenue).

There was a flurry of criticism about tech over-reach around the release of the MIDP. Bianca Wylie laid waste to claims of democratic legitimacy and Sean McDonald dismantled the data governance model. Now, we have our first expert review of the entirety of the plan’s technology components.

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The experts are worried. The 15-member multidisciplinary Digital Advisory Strategy Advisory Panel to Waterfront Toronto has released its initial report (10 Sept. 2019) which it styles as “Preliminary Commentary and Questions.”

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Sidewalk Labs Master Innovation & Development Plan

It starts off with a complaint many of us felt upon reading the MIDP: the plan is “frustratingly abstract,” sprawling, repetitive, and released in PDF only — ironic for a plan that hopes to solve urban data problems, one of which is that cities release records in… PDF.

The summary of issues fronting the 99 page DSAP report (large font) is short enough and I include it here:

  • Overall: In many areas, the MIDP is not sufficiently specific about critical areas of its digital innovation proposals, and it does not provide a clear path for individuals, civic society, or small/startup businesses to participate from design, implementation, operations, and sustainability perspectives.

The rest of the report is a compendium of Panel member comments section by section: digital innovation, digital infrastructure, digital governance, privacy and security, intellectual property, and a few others.

My forthcoming paper with Julia Powles, Urbanism Under Google, showed how the consultation and development process leading up to the MIDP threatened democratic governance, and how aspects of the early planning portended future problems with tech-centered urbanism. In an op-ed, I used mobility data as an example of how the Alphabet conglomerate could monetize and control access to the curb.

Here, I want to run through some of the DSAP concerns as exemplars of what Julia and I were talking about. Looking ahead to the Googlization of urban infrastructure, we identified three central threats: (1) privatization: that the city would yield public authority and ownership over intellectual property, data, land, and law to private companies; (2) platformization: that the incessant push to datify all aspects of life and serve up services on a just-in-time basis, optimized for efficiency, would engorge platform power while dis-empowering residents and service providers; and (3) domination: that both cities and residents would become dependent on tech platforms for services and data, with less and less ability to opt-out, turn to alternatives, or control their personal and collective fates.

The DSAP commentary touches on all of these concerns (and others). On our process points, many DSAP panelists were similarly put off by the cheerful opacity of the plan development process. One noted that Sidewalk had “relentlessly push[ed] for what they want while demonstrating very little capacity or good faith to show they are listening…They have used the power of their media machine, depth of their experience, and political connections in Toronto to float new ideas in public to build social license on their own terms while the government partners are hamstrung b regular public process.” (A-63). Here is how some of the other DSAP points break down according to our typology:


· The intellectual property provisions give too little return to the public.

· Digital systems to be deployed are scattered throughout the MIDP and often buried in architecture, sanitation systems, energy grids, and transit (e.g., digital fabrication of wood buildings, affordable housing, robot delivery, offsite parking, energy management). Where is the map of all the proposed digital systems, the sensors, the data flow, and the digital assets? Who will own what? What is the data footprint?

· Why are the words “open space” and “urban data” used in favor of “public space” and “public data”?

· Why is it not clear whether public bodies or Sidewalk will be in charge of procurement?

· The plan proposes “a set of governance bodies that currently do not exist, under the umbrella of a ‘Public Administrator’ with indeterminate responsibilities and funding…[it is unclear] how they fit into our democratic urban governance.”


· Some of the proposed solutions seem like “tech for tech’s sake,” turning problems of governance or planning into technology problems, requiring massive data collection and advancing tech-company objectives. The proposal often fails to make the case for “a) why more tech is needed; b) why their tech is needed; c) what public good void this tool fills.” One panelist said “Sidewalk Labs is proposing a technology solution (which they want reward for) to problems/issues for which non-tech solutions are already in play. And they are inventing tech solutions for things that aren’t top priorities.”

· Other proposed solutions are tech solutions to which there already are tech solutions, like standardized ports and interfaces. The question then arises, why does a company with siblings that offer “purposeful solutions” need to control how technologies inter-operate?

· Problems like public realm maintenance are not always problems of data, but problems of money. Datafying the public realm may cause problems of surveillance without solving problems of austerity.

· Increasing mixed-use real estate doesn’t necessarily require lots of new monitoring and data-gathering, ripe for exploitation by commercial landlords. Mixed use is “happening right now with a combination of human ingenuity, a willing municipal partner, creative private sector thinking/doing, and people willing to spend their disposable income.”


· What enforceable commitments will Sidewalk Labs make to protect the city if and when it pulls out of a deployment or the technology fails? (this happened with related Google Fiber in Louisville KY). Or when technology requires maintenance or becomes obsolete?

· How will the proposed technologies be integrated with existing technologies, like 5G or broadband? Will there be interoperability or will Sidewalk-related companies elbow out or maroon other deployments?

· Open data does not confer equal access to data; if existing data asymmetries are not taken into account, the proposed open data scheme will likely benefit those who are already data-rich.

· Alphabet’s economic and political power and the data-driven business models of Sidewalk’s corporate siblings pose threats of domination of urban infrastructure and politics.

· The City of Toronto might have to get permission from the Data Trust to collect data it thinks it needs. “Why should an appointed body trump an elected body when it comes to determining whether data should be collected to serve a public policy goal?”


Sidewalk Labs has now promised a “Digital Innovation Appendix” to respond to the DSAP concerns. We’ll have to see.

Written by

Professor of Law, Rutgers University. Information law, free speech, disclosure, media, green marketing

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