By Jacqueline Lu and Jesse Shapins
Since we submitted our Toronto Tomorrow proposal to Waterfront Toronto in June, we’ve heard many important contributions to the public conversation around the Sidewalk Toronto project — including regarding digital innovation. These include issues raised by the public, Waterfront Toronto, Steve Diamond (chair of Waterfront Toronto’s board), and Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel.
All of this feedback has helped productively shape the project’s evolution. In response, today we’re submitting to Waterfront Toronto a Digital Innovation Appendix (DIA) that’s meant to provide the latest information on the digital innovation components of our proposal, to address some of the questions raised by the public conversation, and to continue advancing transparency around all the innovations we are proposing.
This blog post provides an overview of the DIA, which is available on the Sidewalk Toronto website. First, a bit of context around how we got here.
How data governance has evolved
Our initial proposal called for the creation of an independent, government-sanctioned Urban Data Trust to oversee the collection and use of data in the Sidewalk Toronto project area. As a complement to existing privacy laws, this entity would have helped to ensure responsible data use, enhance privacy, and support trusted data sharing. The reasoning behind this proposal was simple: Sidewalk Labs believes that no private company (including us) should monopolize data that could reasonably be considered a public asset.
While many reviewers appreciated the underlying intent behind this proposal, the clear feedback was that a new standalone entity for these functions was not a preferred path for this project. As part of our alignment with Waterfront Toronto on critical issues, Waterfront Toronto, with its government stakeholders, will take the lead on data governance, enabling responsible data use throughout the designated waterfront area, as well as supporting trusted data sharing.
As part of that effort, Waterfront Toronto is developing Intelligent Communities Guidelines — building on its draft Digital Principles — that will apply to private companies deploying digitally-enabled services. The updated guidelines will include a robust process around privacy impact assessments, algorithmic impact assessments (as applicable), threat risk assessments, de-identification at the source by default, Privacy by Design, and other privacy-enhancing practices. Similar to Waterfront Toronto’s Minimum Green Building Standards, these guidelines would be required for all companies Waterfront Toronto works with and would be enforced through contracts.
These guidelines will be consulted upon and further developed with input from government stakeholders, industry, and the broader community.
That’s some background. Now for the DIA. It’s broken up into four sections summarized below:
Section 1: Integrating digital technology into development planning at Quayside
The integration of digital technology into urban development requires different approaches to planning and design. Fundamentally, responsible data use and the digital components and systems of a place must be addressed as core to development planning, similar to other long-standing areas such as program, built form, and economics. As some observers have noted, we need a new era of digital master planning in cities.
In recognition of that need, this section begins with Sidewalk Labs’ approach to integrating digital technology into planning, including how all work has been grounded in Waterfront Toronto’s priority outcomes: economic development, sustainability, housing affordability, new mobility, and urban innovation. We outline the specific stages in the Quayside development process at which Sidewalk Labs will furnish additional information on digitally-enabled systems alongside the formal City of Toronto process — as a step towards further defining how digital planning can work in concert with existing urban planning and city building efforts.
This section is anchored by a comprehensive list of all proposed digitally-enabled services. The objective of this list is to not only describe the “what” and the “why,” but also the “how” and “who” for each service. A few more highlights on the list:
- The list reflects the core principles underlying the digital innovation strategy. These include (but are not limited to): digital restraint, where Sidewalk Labs identified and proposed only digital solutions that directly and materially advance Waterfront Toronto’s priority outcomes; and data minimization, security, and de-identification by default, where Sidewalk Labs restricts the collection, use, and misuse of data, especially personal information.
- It’s worth repeating that Sidewalk Labs has separately committed to not use data for advertising, nor sell it to third parties. We’ve also committed not to share personal information with third parties (including other Alphabet entities) without explicit consent.
- The list describes each system’s purpose, structure, methods, typical and proposed responsible parties for oversight, proposed lead for procurement, and relationship to the growth of innovation ecosystem.
- The list makes clear that the vast majority of systems would not be operated by Sidewalk Labs, and that most would be built by other companies, creating a significant opportunity for Canada’s innovation ecosystem.
- Sidewalk Labs agrees to work with Waterfront Toronto and its government stakeholders in good faith to ensure each digitally-enabled solution will not impede (and where feasible, will foster) accessibility in Quayside, freedom of association, freedom of expression, equitable treatment of marginalized groups, public engagement and participation and other fundamental rights and freedoms, as applicable.
In summary, the digitally enabled services proposed in the list reflect 18 major services/systems with 52 subsystems. Of these services and systems, 82 percent have existing precedents (meaning they’ve already been partially or fully implemented in an existing project, either in Toronto or elsewhere around the world), and 75 percent would be substantially purchased from third parties (meaning only a quarter are expected to be built by Sidewalk Labs).
The list is augmented with diagrams to illustrate physical infrastructure and digital systems proposed for Quayside, providing early insights into the spatial location of sensors and related technology for each of the digitally-enabled services as part of our approach to integrated digital and physical planning.
Finally, this section goes into depth on proposed digital infrastructure that is designed to support the digitally-enabled services, as well as approaches to open standards, security, and resiliency.
Section 2: Sidewalk Labs’ approaches to responsible data use and inclusive design
Digital technology has the potential to improve many aspects of our lives — it can help keep us safe, reduce traffic, aid in the planning of city infrastructure, provide reliable access to the internet, or make spaces more accessible. But there’s often a lack of transparency around these implementations. Furthermore, the pace of digital technology development requires a robust approach to privacy and responsible data use that calls for more than just thinking about the point of collection with notice and consent.
We believe that a higher standard of data governance in cities is possible, and that the public should know how and why data is being collected and used in streets and public spaces. Section 2 details our dedication to ethical and responsible data practices, including in developing and following internal Responsible Data Use Guidelines. Below are some additional details on the guidelines:
- The Responsible Data Use Guidelines include beneficial purpose, transparency, openness, proactive engagement, community trust, and people first. The guidelines — which evolved over the past two years based on consultations with experts and community feedback — apply to all data activities by Sidewalk Labs and are used internally for assessing proposed pilots and projects that involve data.
- Sidewalk Labs brings these guidelines into practice through a Responsible Data Use Assessment (RDUA) process. Developed by Sidewalk Labs with the Information Accountability Foundation — an independent global think tank focused on data governance — the RDUA process provides a mechanism for complying with all applicable privacy requirements, while going further than existing law in considering beneficial uses, risks, and ethical questions related to data. The RDUA tool is made public with the DIA, and is available for others in the community to use, if they choose.
- Sidewalk Labs triggers an RDUA process for initiatives that involve the potential collection or use of data by the company. An RDUA looks to address the purpose of the data collection; the sources of the data; legal compliance and data ethics; and the risks and benefits associated with the project and data collection activity.
This section also provides an overview of Sidewalk Labs’ approach to responsible Artificial Intelligence, including six principles designed to be contextual, progressive, and technology-neutral: fairness and equity; accountability: transparency and explainability; relevance; value alignment; and respect for human dignity and safety.
This section includes a case study on a completed RDUA for an existing pilot to illustrate the RDUA process. The case study describes the launch of a public realm sensing pilot at our Toronto workspace, 307, using a privacy-by-design approach to measure the flows of people and transportation modes through streets and open spaces. The case study offers an example of how the RDUA process drives decisions on potential technology partners and ensures that we share the same values.
Finally, this section describes how we’ve incorporated inclusive and participatory planning into our proposal, including through usability testing, accessibility co-design work, and prototypes for digital transparency in the public realm icons as well as two civic tech tools (Collab and Commonspace). This section further addresses how community input shaped, and will continue to shape, our plans to facilitate equitable access to services, technology, and participation in Quayside.
Section 3: Growing the Canadian urban innovation ecosystem
Few cities can match the GTA’s unique set of assets: a vibrant ecosystem of innovative technology businesses and accelerators; an exceptional talent pool and world-class academic institutions; and an open and diverse society that values inclusive growth, civic engagement, and forward-looking city-building. This was a foundation for Waterfront Toronto’s Quayside RFP, which sought to catalyze the innovation ecosystem growing on the waterfront.
Recognizing that a thriving urban innovation ecosystem is essential to the success of the project, as part of a comprehensive deal, Sidewalk Labs is committed to supporting Canadian innovators at all stages of Sidewalk Toronto’s evolution, including through a series of targeted initiatives designed to create long-term value for the Canadian ecosystem. This section will be described in greater detail in a future blog post, but the highlights include the following initiatives, which could be implemented if the project is ultimately approved:
- Investment in local businesses through a venture capital fund focused on Canadian companies in the urban innovation space
- An expanded patent pledge that supports Canadian-resident innovators advancing solutions globally
- Procurement from Canadian businesses and promotion of these partners abroad to support Canadian companies reaching greater scale
- $10 million in seed capital to establish an Urban Innovation Institute
- A recommendation for a data collaboration hub to be operated collaboratively with cross-sector partners to support the data access needs of the public and third parties
- A revised net revenue-sharing agreement with the public sector
Section 4: Overview of existing policies and approaches for smart cities and digital governance
Waterfront Toronto, its advisors, and the public have asked Sidewalk Labs to address how our proposal was implicated by, and situated within, the existing policy landscape for digital governance and technology. Recognizing that this field is rapidly evolving, and will continue to evolve over time, this section aims to provide this context and to contribute to the broader conversation on smart cities, in particular the political and ethical concerns they raise. It provides an overview of the existing policy landscape in Canada and internationally, and offers case studies as precedent for smart city development.
We appreciate the feedback from Waterfront Toronto, DSAP, and the public shared since the release of our proposal. We’re also most grateful for experts who have reviewed and provided input on portions of the DIA as it has evolved. And we look forward to continuing the conversation as this project moves forward, to help put digital innovations to work for the good of the waterfront and the city.
Jacqueline Lu is Digital Innovation Lead and Jesse Shapins is Director of Urban Design and Digital Innovation at Sidewalk Labs. Both are based in Toronto.