Alphabet Plans to Turn Toronto Into a Tech Power House

Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs have been talking about turning Toronto into a “smart city” for a few years now. This past Monday, they finally announced their full proposal to turn the eastern waterfront into a tech powerhouse. The plan – known as Smart Toronto – claims to break new ground on all fronts of urban life, including sustainability, mobility, digital innovation, and public spaces. 

The development is set to begin in the neighborhoods of Williams West and Quayside. Sidewalk Labs expect this part of the plan to cost $3.9 billion, $900 million of which would be invested by the company. The project could then extend to other areas across the waterfront, referred to by Sidewalk Labs as the “IDEA District”. 

The proposal has been some 18 months in the making and totals over 1,500 pages. Even so, Toronto leaders are still unhappy about some aspects of the project. Major sticking points are surveillance and privacy fears. 

Stephen Diamond, board chairman of Waterfront Toronto, wrote an open letter about the project, saying that there were some parts of the plan where it was clear that Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs had different views on what was needed for success. The letter specified data collection and use and digital governance as three key issues. 

Waterfront Toronto is a publicly-funded organization. They worked together with Sidewalk Labs during the research phase of the process, but Diamond stressed that they were not involved in drafting the Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) that Sidewalk Labs released to the world. It will still need to earn the approval of the board of directors at Waterfront Toronto and the Toronto City Council before anything can be implemented. 

Meanwhile, as noted by CNET, some project advisors with Sidewalk Toronto resigned last year over their concerns about data collection. One such person was Ann Cavoukian, the former Information and Privacy Commissioner for Ontario. 

Sidewalk did offer some potential solutions to the data collection problem. They propose to form an independent, government sanctioned “Urban Data Trust” that will serve as a steward of urban data and the public’s interest without getting in the way of innovation.

Sidewalk Labs have also said they won’t sell personal information to third parties and they won’t use it for advertising. They also said that they wouldn’t disclose any personal information to third parties, including other companies in the Alphabet umbrella, without explicit consent. However, it’s unclear what another company would be allowed to do with any data obtained through the proposed plans. 

The website for the project says that there has been a lot of steps taken to stimulate conversation about data governance principles, but no one has managed to adopt a comprehensive approach that addresses the challenges and allows digital innovation to flourish responsibly. The Sidewalk Toronto Project is, to them, a chance to do that. 

Their “holistic approach to digital innovation” will cover four key components; responsible data use, maintaining an open digital infrastructure, core digital services, secure and transparent data standards, and core digital services. 

As far as digital infrastructure is concerned, the company has laid out a vision for complete internet connectivity powered by Super-PON technology. They also have plans for physical mounts throughout the development that work as a kind of “urban USB port” that allows the city to seamlessly deploy digital devices such as air-quality sensors and Wi-Fi antennae. 

The proposals go above and beyond digital infrastructure, entering spaces like mobility. For example, the project includes a plan for an underground tunnel network to connect buildings, allowing for self-driving delivery dollies to make speedy and safe deliveries across the entire neighborhood. 

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