It’s a project that has captured the imagination, conjuring both utopian and dystopian visions of the future, but Google-parent Alphabet’s proposed development of a smart city on Toronto’s waterfront is hanging in the balance. The city of Toronto’s administration and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, the Google holding’s smart city unity, are locked in final negotiations that will decide by the end of this month if the project will go ahead.
The two biggest questions that remain to be thrashed out are exactly how much land in the city Sidewalk Labs will be given to develop the smart city on and how the company will use the data the connected urban space will gather on those who live and work in it. If no agreement is reached by October 31st, the same date another big decision is due to reach its conclusion here in the UK, either party can choose to walk away from the project.
Toronto city councillors have accused Sidewalk Labs of an attempted “land grab” after the company in June released plans for the development of a 150-acre site along the city’s disused waterfront. The original agreement with the city had been for a much smaller 12-acre site. The city’s mayor, John Tory, has warned Sidewalk that it should not expect to be awarded the larger development area but suggested a couple of compromises. The first is that if the company did an “absolutely sterling, five-star” job on the originally proposed smaller site, there would be a high chance of it then being awarded more adjacent land to extend the project. Another sweetener for Sidewalk Labs to agree to a smaller ‘pilot’ development zone for its smart city could, suggested Mr Tory, be a separate plot in the city on which it could build a new national headquarters for Google.
Public scepticism around the proposed development has grown in Toronto, whose citizens are worried about the privacy infringement that the data that would be collected by the smart city would involve. There are particular concerns around data being gathered on those who do not choose to live and work in the area but are obliged to pass through or visit it for one reason or another. A July poll suggests 60 per cent of Toronto residents who are aware of the project do not trust Sidewalk Labs when it comes to collecting data in the smart city. Blayne Haggart, an academic who has closely followed the development, commented:
“Sidewalk Labs from the very beginning has played fast and loose with the issue of data collection and digital governance. From a privacy perspective, Sidewalk Labs has not given us any reasons to trust that they will come up with something in the public interest.”