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With Sidewalk Toronto, Google is Building Itself a New Market

Sidewalk Labs is planning for a suite of Alphabet technologies

Paris Marx
Illustration of Sidewalk’s plans for the Eastern Waterfront. Source: Sidewalk Labs

In October 2017, Waterfront Toronto — a partnership between the city, provincial, and federal governments — announced an agreement with Google sister-company Sidewalk Labs (hereafter referred to as “Sidewalk”) to develop a 12-acre (4.9-hectare) site on Toronto’s waterfront called Quayside, with the goal of extending that partnership to the whole of the 800-acre (325-hectare) Eastern Waterfront. The project was dubbed Sidewalk Toronto.

For Waterfront Toronto and the governments involved, Sidewalk Toronto presents an opportunity to brand Canada’s largest city as a world leader in digital urbanism and a global innovation hub; while Sidewalk gets an urban site on which to implement its vision for the future city “built from the internet up.” And that vision isn’t necessarily a terrible one.

In its Request for Proposal (RFP), Sidewalks proposes that Quayside (and the larger Eastern Waterfront) become a space where streets are designed for residents, transit, and self-driving vehicles instead of private cars; where physical space is built to easily adapt to the changing needs of the community; and where a “digital layer” is applied to track nearly every metric with the goal of improving service delivery. All of these initiatives — and more — are described in language perfectly crafted by Google’s best copywriters to seduce any politician looking to present their jurisdiction as innovative and forward-thinking.

But critical assessment shouldn’t be ignored because of some enticing words and clever references to the local area and well-known urbanists. The details in the RFP suggest a number of major concerns, one of which is Sidewalk’s dual position as both a planning partner for the site and a vendor of products and services essential to the realization of its vision. And that presents very real issues around fairness in procurement and the privatization of functions typically performed by governments.

Map of the area. Source: Sidewalk Labs

An Urban Vision Built on Google

Over a twelve-month period, Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk will go through a three-stage process to develop the Master Innovation and Development Plan for Quayside that will go into much further detail about their plans for the site, during which time they will also hold a “broad” program of public consultations. This is based on an overview released by the City of Toronto, as the Framework Agreement has not been made public.

However, the RFP is far more explicit about Sidewalk’s intent for Quayside and the larger Eastern Waterfront. While it makes occasional reference to participation by third-party technology companies, it’s far more concerned with new technologies to be developed by Sidewalk and the implementation of products from Alphabet and companies its invested in.

Self-Driving Cars and Mobility

The area that most obviously illustrates Sidewalk’s conflict is its vision for mobility. Private cars are out in favour of walking, cycling, transit, and self-driving vehicles — again, not necessarily a bad thing — the latter of which, presented in the RFP as “the most revolutionary technology development in transportation since the jet engine,” holds a clear incentive for Sidewalk to prioritize Alphabet’s products and services over those of its competitors.

Anyone familiar with self-driving cars will already know that Alphabet’s Waymo is one of the leading companies in the space, and Sidewalk makes several references to running a pilot with a fleet of Waymo “taxibots” and “multi-passenger vanbots” in Quayside. Should Sidewalk simply be able to pick its sister company’s product for the pilot? The only other transportation references in the document are to ride-hailing companies Lyft and Uber, yet they’re not exactly competitors: Alphabet-owned venture capital fund CapitalG has a stake in Lyft, while its other fund GV has invested in Uber.

The RFP states that Sidewalk will either partner with an existing mobility-as-a-service provider or develop its own service, though given the number of products and services it intends to build for Quayside — more on that in a minute — it wouldn’t be a surprise if the company pursues the latter option.

Sidewalk has a couple of existing technologies which also fit into its transportation plans. Flow tracks traffic patterns and parking availability to show drivers the level of congestion on their route, details about toll charges, and whether there’s parking at their destination; while Intersection plays a similar role for transit users, displaying real-time data on transit services, delays, and capacity on large screens interspersed with advertisements. LinkNYC and LinkUK, free gigabit wireless hotspots funded by advertising in New York City and London, respectively, are also Intersection projects. Sidewalk makes reference to their future role in Quayside, where Intersection will take on a greater level of importance.

A LinkNYC terminal displaying nearby rentals. Source: LinkNYC

The Digital Layer

Sidewalk compares the digital layer to computer and smartphone operating systems, but for the city. It is the urban platform on which Sidewalk’s city of the future is built, collating data from the wide array of sensors placed all around the site to capture everything from weather patterns to whether a trash can is full. It will allow residents to access public services, rent communal spaces, communicate with friends and local officials, and use “a neighbourhood assistant tool to facilitate social cooperation and civic engagement.”

The Intersection terminals play an important role in this vision. They will serve as a point of interaction with Sidewalk’s urban platform and the services made available through it, as well as the exclusive container for wireless standards including wifi, LTE, and LoRa (low-range, low-power radio). This suggests that telecommunications companies will not be allowed to install their own network hardware, but will instead have to sign a contract with Sidewalk or Intersection for access to it.

And not only does the RFP state that Sidewalk will develop the software platform to enable the digital layer, but it’s already testing the sensors it plans to use, among them Alphabet-owned Nest’s home thermostat. Further, the modeling of the collected data will occur on Google’s Cloud Computing platform and data from building surveys will be obtained with technology based on Google’s Tango augmented reality platform.

Basically, every aspect of the digital layer seems to rely on hardware or software coming from Sidewalk or another company within the Alphabet umbrella. But where technologies it needs don’t exist, Sidewalk doesn’t seem to be doing much searching; it plans to develop them in-house.

Design Labs and Investment Plans

Throughout the RFP, Sidewalk makes reference to several “labs” that are working on technologies to make its vision a reality, some of which even seem to be moving into services previously delivered by the public sector.

The Care Lab, for example, is “actively developing digital tools to integrate primary care and social services for city residents,” which sounds like an enhanced version of electronic medical records. This would require access to sensitive personal information currently held by health and social service providers.

There’s also the Build Lab, which is working on modular construction techniques, and through which Sidewalk hopes to embed an “innovation team” with leading companies in the field to “design and test components and processes.” It will also continue experimenting with “innovative building materials” such as tall timber and mycelium/Shikkui plaster.

We’ve already seen how Sidewalk has technologies designed to track and display mobility information, but its Semaphore Lab is “developing traffic lights that can identify cyclists and pedestrians, and calculate their speeds, to identify when potential collisions might occur and adjust signals accordingly” — the data from which will be integrated into Flow.

Finally, the Model Lab will use all the data collected by the multitude of sensors placed all around the urban landscape to create digital models that Sidewalk claims will be able to optimize traffic in real time and allow city officials to run “what-if” scenarios to see the outcomes of planning decisions.

Clearly, many of the technologies necessary to build a city “from the internet up” will be designed and provided by Sidewalk and other Alphabet companies. Even when Sidewalk acknowledges that other companies may have technologies that could help it deliver on its vision, it says they may be “worth early investment consideration,” suggesting that instead of contracting their technologies, Sidewalk will first invest to get an ownership stake.

The degree to which Sidewalk intends to build its own technologies into the fundamental structures of the Sidewalk Toronto project should be alarming to anyone looking at it without the rose-colored glasses that tend to accompany anything done by a Silicon Valley company. We need to ask what obligations this path of development would place on the city.

Some of the features of Sidewalk’s Eastern Waterfront plan. Source: Sidewalk Labs

Locking Cities Into Google’s Urban Platform

If Sidewalk’s vision gets implemented according to the RFP, Quayside will be equipped with Sidewalk-approved sensors, whose data will be fed into a Sidewalk-designed urban platform that will make up the core of the site’s digital layer. Through this platform, residents will be able to access Sidewalk-curated mobility information and services, a Sidewalk-designed “neighbourhood assistant,” and location-based data on a platform similar to Google Maps from devices connected to wireless services made available through Sidewalk-controlled radios. Residents will live in Sidewalk-designed modular housing and hail Waymo driverless vehicles for longer trips. Everything they do will be tracked and fed into Google’s Cloud Computing platform to be modeled for city officials (and who knows who else).

The multitude of issues here should be obvious. Sidewalk is a planning partner for Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront, yet its plans have its own technologies built into every aspect of the urban environment. This begs a further question: what obligations would this path of development place on the City of Toronto if part of their city is built on Sidewalk’s digital platform?

Who would own the platform’s intellectual property? Presumably, Sidewalk would want it, but would this mean that the City would have to pay for the technology designed by the same company that planned the section of the city where it’s in use? Would it have to pay for ongoing subscriptions to Google’s Cloud Computing platform on which sensor data is stored? And what about the ownership of those radios for wifi, LTE, etc.? Would Sidewalk really be given exclusive control of that infrastructure, or would it belong to the City?

We’ve come so far down this path of neoliberal urbanism that the level of privatization presented by Sidewalk Toronto isn’t even an issue to many politicians and media commentators — it’s just the next step on the road to corporate domination. However, there are still some providing a dissenting voice. Open government advocate Bianca Wylie is calling for a complete overhaul of governments’ approach to data and technology.

It’s well past the right time to have broader civic discussions about government technology. We can use this pilot with Sidewalk Labs to have that discussion and to find the city and resident needs that technology can help with, rather than discussing how to plug already designed products into our municipal purchasing cycles. […] [W]e must absolutely acknowledge and retain the idea that government tech can be done in-house and that some should only be done in-house.

It’s about time we heed Wylie’s words and take a closer look at how we want to augment our cities with technologies, what those technologies should look like, and who should design and own those technologies in the end. The narrative of incompetent government has become so strong — thanks in part to how governments have been starved of funds by decades of successive tax cuts — that it seems natural that software ought to come from Silicon Valley tech giants and the private sector — but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Governments all over the world are creating departments aimed at developing their own software to improve service delivery. Inspired by similar initiatives in the United Kingdom and the United States, the Canadian Digital Service and Ontario Digital Service recently launched to do just that. Over the next year, residents of Toronto need to decide if they want their city to be locked into Sidewalk’s platform in perpetuity, or if they want their city to chart its own course into the digital future.

Sidewalk’s ambitions don’t end with Quayside, or even the Eastern Waterfront. Wylie has detailed how the company is already planning to expand into other parts of Toronto and how it intends for its urban platform to monopolize digital service provision. The time for Toronto — and other cities — to grapple with this question is now. If they begin using Sidewalk’s platform without considering the consequences, they’ll find it very difficult to switch once their residents are already locked in.

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

Paris Marx

Written by

Socialist, traveller, urbanist. MA Geog, McGill. I write critically about tech and cities, and curate the Radical Urbanist newsletter:

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.