Digital panel raises big concerns with Sidewalk Labs’ smart city proposal

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Digital panel raises big concerns with Sidewalk Labs’ smart city proposal


A Waterfront Toronto advisory panel has big concerns with digital aspects of Sidewalk Labs’s controversial proposal for a high-tech neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront.

“Preliminary commentary” released Tuesday by the tri-government agency’s digital strategy advisory group — 15 Canadian and international experts — raises serious questions about the globally watched proposal from Sidewalk Labs, a Manhattan-based sister company of Google.

The new report could be another setback to efforts by Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs to formalize a final partnership to transform a 12-acre former industrial site at Queens Quay and Parliament St. — and potentially another 190 acres of city-owned Port Lands — into a test bed for innovations to solve urban challenges on housing, transit and more.

Questions of ownership and protection of Torontonians’ data that are expected to be generated and stored by sensors throughout the area emerged as an early major concern after Sidewalk Labs in October 2017 won an international competition to potentially partner with the agency on the Quayside site.

Sidewalk Labs should be cut out of responsibility for crafting mechanisms to control data governance, with Waterfront Toronto and its government partners taking full control, the panel says. Sidewalk Labs should “focus on elaborating on how it will make its own proposals for data collection, processing and use more transparent, accountable and amenable to a robust privacy protection regime.”

Also, the company’s master innovation and development plan, released with fanfare in June, is “not sufficiently specific about critical areas of its digital innovation proposals, and it does not provide a clear path for individuals, civic society, or small/startup businesses to participate from design, implementation, operations, and sustainability perspectives.”

Sidewalk Labs needs to show how its array of proposed digital innovations, including infrastructure and launch services, will help accomplish Waterfront Toronto’s goals for Quayside, the panel says.

Also, Sidewalk Labs’ proposals on sharing the benefits of intellectual property and economic development are “insufficient,” while “additional specific commitments designed to enable the growth of the local urban innovation industry are needed.”

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The digital strategy advisory group is expected to release a full report later, after receiving Sidewalk Labs’ response to the concerns.

In a statement, Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang told the Star her company has heard many of the concerns as the agency and company work together. Sidewalk Labs is producing a “digital innovation appendix” with a full list of technology to be deployed in Quayside.

Rang said the appendix, expected next month, will state how Sidewalk Labs would support Toronto’s technology ecosystem and research on governance.

“We are confident the Digital Innovation Appendix will help respond to some of this feedback” from the advisory panel, she wrote.

Last month, Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs agreed on an Oct. 31 deadline to address stumbling blocks en route to signing a final partnership agreement to proceed with Quayside as a living laboratory for the sustainable neighbourhood of the future.

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If agreement proves impossible on sticking points including a new waterfront transit line and the amount of land involved, Waterfront Toronto said in August that the agency’s board would have to decide how to proceed. Sending Sidewalk Labs packing, and restarting a global search for a new waterfront development partner, is among the options.

If the partners proceed past Halloween, they have a March 31 target for final agreement.

David Rider

David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider





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