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Where Toronto sees smart sidewalks, residents see ‘1984.’ So what now?

Sidewalk Toronto
Sidewalk Toronoto

It is touted as a unique opportunity to build a smart city within a major city, literally from the ground up. Environmental remediation, new infrastructure, digital electrification plans, new-age mobility options — the whole shebang.

If only people would stop complaining about privacy issues.

Cities across the globe are installing technology to gather data in the hopes of saving money, becoming cleaner, reducing traffic, and improving urban life. In Digital Trends’ Smart Cities series, we’ll examine how smart cities deal with everything from energy management, to disaster preparedness, to public safety, and what it all means for you.

Up in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, there’s been much ado about what will happen to all the data that the future Sidewalk Toronto project will generate. The focus of the debate has been, predictably, Alphabet (Google’s parent company) whose Sidewalk Labs is the primary partner in the project. And yet, for all the sturm und drang about personal information, not a single spade-full of dirt has been spilled yet.

For Toronto, the city would gain a new and smart neighborhood. For Alphabet, it would have access to data. So what’s the Sidewalk Toronto project all about, and why are consumer advocates sounding the alarms? Here’s a primer.

Sidewalk Toronto
Sidewalk Toronoto

What exactly is the plan?

On a virtually abandoned piece of former industrial property along Lake Ontario, east of downtown Toronto, the plan is to rehabilitate an area of what are now largely parking lots by creating a smart, futuristic community of affordable housing, intelligent infrastructure, sustainable living and working spaces, and cutting-edge transportation and technology systems. The area would become a new neighborhood, called Quayside.

Waterfront Toronto, which owns the initial 12-acre property, issued a request for proposal for a partner to develop the site last year. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs was the winner.

Sidewalk Toronoto

“Since then, what we have been doing is the major planning effort, which is being funded by Sidewalk Labs,” Micah Lasher, who is the head of policy and communications at Sidewalk Labs, told Digital Trends. The master plan will be a comprehensive proposal on how to develop the property from a business and technology standpoint, while achieving specific environmental and accessibility goals. Sidewalk Labs will reportedly spend about $50 million on the initial planning phase.

What are the coolest smart elements of the project?

Right now, the planners are letting their imaginations run wild, with proposals coming from startups to major high-tech firms that cover everything from digital power to autonomous modes of transportation.

“Our vision is to be a catalyst for this place and not to be the primary deliverer of technology and solutions,” Lasher said.

Consequently, there have been plenty of interesting ideas pouring in from third parties, starting literally on the sidewalks and roads. One concept, for example, is to deploy a “dynamic paving” system that uses hexagonal pavers that can withstand Ontario winters better than conventional pavement and be easily maintained.

An embedded lighting system would separate pedestrians from cyclists, encouraging safety and multimodal transportation alternatives. In addition to anticipating shared mobility services in autonomous form, there’s also a plan to build a subterranean garbage collection system that will keep the streets above ground clean and quiet.

“We’re really interested in the use of mass timber for construction in a substantial amount of the buildings,” Lasher said. Using such preformed wood products in taller buildings or “plyscrapers” can reduce construction costs and, according to a study by Yale University and the University of Washington, reduce related CO2 emissions by 14 to 31 percent.

Sidewalk Toronto
Sidewalk Toronoto

Because the project is in many ways starting from scratch, it’s giving Sidewalk and its potential partners a chance to rethink the smart city concept. That may involve a new kind of street grid and a reduced need for parking spaces, for example, given that technology is changing how people move around communities.

What’s the actual timeline?

“A very detailed proposal for the new community will be presented in draft form, probably in the first quarter of 2019,” Lasher said. That will be followed by another likely intense period of engaging with stakeholders, such as local businesses and government officials, and the public for the rest of 2019.

So, even if the feedback is generally positive next year, Torontonians probably won’t see bulldozers along Quayside until 2020.

What are the major challenges?

“There are reasons why that part of the city has been undeveloped for as long as it has,” Lasher said.

There are ineluctable environmental issues, for example. After decades of industrial use, some remediation will be needed to eliminate any potentially harmful or toxic detritus that may still be in the ground. The government has proposed setting aside over a $1 billion (Canadian) for environmental remediation.

Today we’re sharing a draft plan for Quayside. This plan, to be presented and discussed at the roundtable on Dec 8, aims to set new standards in housing affordability, transportation, and sustainability, and create economic opportunities for Torontonians:

— Sidewalk Toronto (@SidewalkToronto) November 29, 2018

Then, there is the issue of infrastructure. Toronto has a struggling transportation system and the Quayside area where the Sidewalk project will be built is particularly difficult to reach. There’s no light rail or subway extension to provide access, for example, and although it is near the downtown core, a highway cuts it off from the rest of town.

While light rail solutions have been discussed in the past, there are no current plans to build a mass transit extension to reach the area. So the Sidewalk proposal will have to include some new mobility solutions, no doubt involving autonomous forms of transportation.

“Transit connectivity is an absolute necessity,” Lasher said.

Privacy concerns

Not without reason, Google has become a target for those concerned about privacy and, by extension, personal security.

Between all the data Google and Alphabet collect on people’s behavior online, plus revelations that third-parties can get access to personal Gmail accounts, consumer advocates have been understandably concerned — and distrustful — of Alphabet and its ambitions. Couple that with future technologies, like Waymo-powered autonomous vehicles, and community video, lidar, and sensor systems that would monitor people throughout a smart community, like Sidewalk Toronto, it’s understandable why there would be heightened concern. For anyone living in such a place, there would be no way to opt out.

Introducing Sidewalk Toronto

Should Google know where you are at every moment of every day — what stores you visited, whether you walked to work or drove yourself, and how many drinks you consumed at the local bar? Should Alphabet and its associated businesses know how much electricity you used yesterday and what Netflix shows you watched? Canada recently legalized the recreational use of marijuana. So, should Alphabet be allowed to monitor people’s marijuana consumption and then share the information with other companies and possibly potential employers?

As the discussions and planning progressed, several people initially involved in the project who focused on privacy and data issues have quit. The most prominent person to leave recently was Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner, who was a consultant on the project.

Several people initially involved in the project who focused on privacy and data issues have quit.

The principal objection from those who have left has been that Sidewalk Labs would allow third parties — in other words, any associated business — to use the collected information on citizens. It’s also unclear about how “anonymized” — or in the words of a Sidewalk Labs blog, “de-identified” — the data would be. One of the former co-CEOs of Blackberry creator Research In Motion, Jim Balsillie, has also complained that it was unclear who would own the resulting data and intellectual property.

Clearly sensing that having a single company, especially Alphabet, so intimately involved in a smart city project can be seen as letting Big Brother take control, Sidewalk Labs recently proposed handing over the city data to an independent Civic Data Trust. No one particular organization would own the aggregated information, and it could be used freely by companies to develop apps and innovative solutions — such as how to keep public garbage receptacles serviced — in the future.

However, that proposal may just push the privacy problem onto another group. The nitty gritty of what kind of specific information gets collected, by whom (the government or Google or others?). and how de-identified (or not de-identified) it all ends up being remains to be spelled out.

What’s next?

Right now and for the new foreseeable few months, Sidewalk Labs will be engaged in a campaign to win over the public and other businesses. That “public engagement phase” includes the Sidewalk Toronto 307 space, an experiential center that’s open for the public to see some of the smart ideas being proposed for the city. (It’s located at 307 Lake Shore Blvd E. in Toronto, hence the name.) The next real test will come when Sidewalk Labs delivers its draft master innovation and development plan early next year. That’s when we can expect to hear more wild ideas for how to build a smart community — and more objections.

John R. Quain
John R. Quain writes for The New York Times, Men's Journal, and several other publications. He is also the personal…
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