On May 7th, 2020, Sidewalk Labs announced that it is withdrawing from the controversial Quayside development project, putting an end to years of planning and debate in Toronto. Was the move truly motivated by the economic instability the world faces because of COVID-19, or was it simply time for the company to remove itself from a project that was becoming too burdensome?
What is Sidewalk Labs?
Sidewalk Labs is a company run by Alphabet, Google’s parent company. In 2017, Waterfront Toronto launched a request for proposals to develop the Quayside area, and Sidewalk Labs was announced as the successful applicant that same year. Since then, there have been a number of plans and amendments submitted by Sidewalk Labs, and a number of public consultations and setbacks to the project, which will be discussed later in this blog. You can find a full timeline of the project here.
Sidewalk Labs states that its mission is to improve urban life on many levels, including sustainability and mobility, by developing cutting-edge technology and design. Many of the anticipated improvements in urban life are reliant on heavy surveillance and data collection, including virtually all aspects of resident and visitor behaviour.
Pulling out of the Project
On May 7th, 2020, Sidewalk Labs announced that it was withdrawing from the planned development project due to worldwide economic uncertainty and uncertainty in the Toronto real estate market. In terms of moving forward, CEO Daniel Doctoroff stated that he believes the companies that have already been launched or funded in preparation for the Quayside will still be useful tools for solving many modern-day urban problems. For example, Ori, a robotic furniture company, provides innovative solutions to cramped condo living. A team of architects designed mass-timber skyscrapers, which are more environmentally friendly than steel and concrete building materials. Theoretically, either of these technologies, as well as the others that were funded or devised by Sidewalk Labs, could be applied in other urban areas, or even in Toronto.
Meanwhile, in his public statement on the matter, Waterfront Toronto’s Board Chair Stephen Diamond explained that while this is not the outcome the city had hoped for, he maintains that Quayside still presents a wonderful opportunity for any partner organization to explore innovative solutions to urban problems.
One has to wonder if Alphabet used the economic and societal upheaval caused by COVID-19 as an excuse to pull out of a project that was already mired with controversy and setbacks.
Controversy and Setbacks
One of the major hurdles that Sidewalk Labs faced was privacy. In late 2018, former Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian resigned from her position as a privacy consultant for Sidewalk Labs. She specifically advocated for stripping data of all personally identifiable details because in a smart city like Sidewalk Labs, there would be no way for individuals to provide consent to the collection of personal information, especially in public areas. When she learned that Sidewalk Labs would not mandate data de-identification, she felt she had to resign.
Then, in 2019, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) filed a Notice of Application for Judicial Review of Waterfront Toronto’s approval of Sidewalk Labs’ design plan. The CCLA sought a declaration under s.24(1) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter) that Waterfront Toronto violated, or was going to violate, Canadians’ personal and collective privacy rights under ss.2(c), 2(d), 7 and 8 of the Charter. The Notice of Application for Judicial Review cites concerns with Waterfront Toronto’s inexperience with data governance structures, as well as violations of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act in the collection and use of individuals’ personal information.
Sidewalk Labs held a one-day Indigenous consultation session in 2018, which resulted in 14 recommendations. None of these recommendations were incorporated into the design plan. Critics of Alphabet’s approach say that references to Indigenous perspectives are scattered throughout Sidewalk Labs’ plans and website, but that meaningful Indigenous involvement or presence in the proposed community is non-existent.
Regardless of whether Alphabet was motivated by the economic uncertainties of today, or whether it was already looking for an excuse to withdraw from the project due to multiple setbacks and unexpected pushback from the community, Toronto will have to sit back and watch as another city adopts this urban experiment.
Written by Rachel Marcus, IPilogue Contributing Editor. Rachel is going into her third year at Osgoode Hall Law School, and she is also an IP Innovation Clinic Fellow.
My first reaction was disappointment upon learning sidewalk labs withdrew from the Quayside Development Project. As someone who have visited the planning office and learned about all the innovative ideas sidewalk has planned for the project, I am very passionate about the smart city vision. I am disappointed that the innovation and thinking process of design a smart community stopped at the prototype stage. Even though, as the article suggested, some developed tools can be useful in the future in solving urban problems but without a pilot project like Quayside to test those solutions, it’s hard to image the City’s planning office will quickly repurpose those tools.
This article had provided an overview of the controversies sidewalk faced and suggested that economic instability caused by COVID-19 is only an excuse for sidewalk to exist the controversies. At end of the day, it is a business decision. All the problems sidewalk faced regarding privacy and indigenous consultations are not novel issues specific to the Quayside project. Sidewalk has left behind itself the core issue that how can we strike a balance between the protection of personal identification data, and the use of sensors, big data, and IoT in creating a more efficient and responsive city.