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Sidewalk Labs and Toronto Waterfront: Five lessons for smart, innovative city building

Launched to great fanfare in 2017, Sidewalk Labs Toronto Waterfront was supposed to mark a new era of intelligent and sustainable design. Three years on, the project was prematurely shut down. How can the Sidewalk Labs misadventure inform smart city strategies and solutions globally? We share five lessons.

Kay Pitman, World Built Environment Forum
13 October 2021

Cities can’t just be viewed as technology labs

‘I think in some ways Sidewalk Labs walked into a difficult setting’, explains Matti Siemiatycki, Professor of Geography and Planning and Director of the Infrastructure Institute, University of Toronto. ‘The previous generation of companies like Uber or Airbnb saw cities as a tech lab. They moved in with this idea of strategic confrontation: they were going to come in and set their own rules. And by extension of their popularity, the governance was going to change.’

Such an inherently confrontational approach to city planning can have unintended consequences. ‘In many instances it felt like a company coming in from the outside and trying to explain to Torontonians what a good form of urbanism might be, and that rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way. It can be very exciting to think of your city as a place that could be on the cutting edge of the entire world. It actually seems plausible when you think of a company like Google, which has changed the world in many ways through their inventions and technologies. But building a city is different to building an app. People have different investments. The idea of moving fast and breaking things could actually upset people’s lives in the real world.’

If the tech is always on, you need to ensure privacy by design

Ann Cavoukian, Ph.D., is Executive Director, Global Privacy & Security by Design, and former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. She describes what privacy by design means: ‘Whenever any personally identifiable data is collected, before any process is made, before it is transferred anywhere else, we strip it of all personal identifiers. And then you’re free to do whatever you want with the data. It’s no longer privacy invasive, there’s no personal information that can be leaked in the data, so there’s no privacy concern associated with use of the data.’

Ann was initially hired to help embed privacy into the Sidewalk Labs Toronto Waterfront project. She later resigned when the project’s leadership opted against making privacy-by-design a mandatory requirement for participating companies. ‘With the technology that was going to be put into place, you’re going to have this tech on all the time, twenty-four hours a day. That includes sensors, cameras and surveillance. In that scenario there would be no opportunity for people to provide their consent, because the information was going to be collected automatically.’

Sidewalk Labs and Toronto Waterfront: A cautionary smart city tale?

Launched to great fanfare in 2017, the Sidewalk Labs Toronto Waterfront plan was supposed to mark a new era of intelligent and sustainable urbanisation. So why did the project fall short and how can the experience inform smart city projects globally?

I think it’s impossible to reach the sustainable development goals without the heavy use of technology. Technology is needed to change almost all models, from mobility to real estate. We know about the 15-minute city, the walkable city, but to solve this problem we need technology

Stefan Junestrand
CEO and Co-Founder, Grupo Tecma Red S.L

Building cities from the internet up risks putting people’s needs second

Ann explains how important community engagement is to the success of smart cities. ‘One of the problems with Sidewalk Labs was that they didn’t do much consultation with the public. Having local interaction with the people living in the area is essential. You need to understand what they want, how they want to be engaged, the kinds of technology they want and where. I think they did overlook that: offering that level of interaction on technology, from none to 100%.’

Stefan Junestrand, CEO and Co-Founder, Grupo Tecma Red S.L. agrees. ‘The smart city has to be based on the unique properties of the city: geographically, historically, also of course politically. Creating a smart city in Toronto is different to creating one in other places that have different structures and different democracies.’

However, when implemented well, people can really engage with technology. ‘I think people love technology when it is implemented well’, explains Stefan. ‘When people come to a new city now, they walk or drive around aided by Google Maps: you know exactly where you are, where you want to go. The aim of building a smart city must be to build a city that is capable of integrating all these new technologies. People want to live in a place where there is great social interaction, a healthy environment, clean air, no noise, you can be on the street and feel safe.’

Technology is important, but does smart necessarily mean tech?

‘There’s a huge appetite to build cities that are more equitable, more environmentally sustainable, with a more inclusive economy.  In that sense the mandate and idea of building cities that leverage technology to deliver social and environmental benefits is very strong. It’s a powerful idea’ says Matti. ‘In some ways we’ve learned the wrong lessons: the idea that ‘smart’, by extension, is ‘technology’. There are many aspects of a smart city that have nothing to do with technology. We know a lot about building a city that is walkable, that has bike lanes, that has neighbourhoods that are mixed use and have the density where people can have access to all of their daily needs close by. We know about the role of public investment and providing affordable housing, providing long term care, providing day care. None of that needs new technologies.’

Stefan disagrees: ‘I think it’s impossible to reach the sustainable development goals without the heavy use of technology. Technology is needed to change almost all models, from mobility to real estate. We know about the 15-minute city, the walkable city, but to solve this problem we need technology. It can help. Teleworking lets people work remotely; they can live and work and walk around their locality. Technology, innovation and new disruptive solutions aim to break away from the way things have been done before.’

Governments and people, rather than companies, are best placed to be the owners and coordinators of smart cities

‘Sidewalk Labs was an aggregator’, explains Matti.  ‘They were trying to bring together the ideas of many small companies and put them under the roof of Google. Google was going to play a larger role. It was going to become the operating system of the smart city in the same way that their Android system is the operating system of the phone, or Chrome is now the window into the internet. But what many people were saying was, we don’t want that, we want democratically elected governments to play the role of intermediary. We want them to bring in companies and to create a space for innovation that is more open.’

Stefan agrees: ‘The owner of the project, the coordinating body, and the responsibility that goes with it has to be on the government. In the future, it would be even better on the people. I really believe the ownership of these technologies could become the property of the citizens in the future.’

‘I totally agree’ says Ann. ‘We need to turn to the people more, and get groups of citizens involved, and not just rely on the government.’

One of the problems with Sidewalk Labs was that they didn’t do much consultation with the public. Having local interaction with the people living in the area is essential. You need to understand what they want, how they want to be engaged, the kinds of technology they want and where

Ann Cavoukian
Ph.D., is Executive Director, Global Privacy & Security by Design, and former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario